Exceptional B2B Marketing
Strategy and Results
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I suspect that two types of people will read this article. The first group consists of those who are fairly new to digital marketing. They need to understand how they can benefit and a few tips to get started. The second group consists of those who are participating in digital marketing, but need to improve their results. This may require a bit of tweaking or a major re-work of their strategy.
So, what can digital marketing do for you and why is it worth spending your precious time and budget? Assuming you do it right, digital marketing can:
- Build your company credibility. In most B2B industries, prospects check out a company online before engaging, let alone buying. You have a chance to establish the online presence that either adds to, or subtracts from, the strength of your brand. And if things get off track, you can use reputation management techniques to help restore your brand value. One important point about an online presence: If you are going to go, go BIG. There is a lot of “me-too” out there and you need some compelling differentiation to cut through the clutter.
- Generate leads and revenue at low cost. If you are going to compete with larger players, you need to play the digital marketing game as well as they do. This means capturing the email addresses of your prospects and customers, or getting them to follow you on Facebook, LinkedIn or one of the other interactive social media platforms.
- Shorten the sales cycle. B2B companies that have complex and/or long sales cycles have found digital marketing to be enormously helpful in saving the time of their reps and improving sales conversion rates. For more on this topic, read my article about Six Ways to Shorten the Sales Cycle. More good news: The same techniques that shorten the sales cycle can give you the added benefit of lowering your customer acquisition cost (CaC).
- Create awareness. You can’t win business from those that don’t know you exist. The cyber world is vast, amorphous, chaotic and constantly changing. You have to grab—and hold—your share of the attention to succeed. Many successful online companies started out as local firms with a very limited market reach. And many small- to mid-size companies have grabbed market share from larger competitors because of their aggressive and effective use of digital marketing.
- Provide anywhere and anytime access. Just a few years ago, mobile access was something of an afterthought. You built your website for desktop and laptop viewers and then figured out how to make it mobile-friendly. However, we are now seeing prospects and customers utilizing mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.) at the rate of 1/3 to 1/2 of total views in some industries. The key to making this work for you is to provide a website that is both mobile-responsive and full of the type of information necessary to move prospects closer to a buying decision.
- Give you a great testing platform. Want to test a new message, product viability or landing page? Digital marketing techniques like SEO, pay-per-click or online advertising can quickly test your marketplace receptivity. The idea is to test quickly, abandon what doesn’t work and scale what does work.
The reality every B2B company faces is that consumer and business expectations are increasing. It is easier than ever for prospects to find your competitors if you don’t offer them a productive and pleasant online experience. For our clients, we complete something called a website and social media analysis to find out what digital marketing actions they need to take to surpass competitors. This type of analysis can be a good jumping off point to get you on the right path to digital marketing success.
I started my blogging journey at Great B2B Marketing seven years ago this month. It’s been quite an adventure and like anything someone does for seven years (and over 250 posts), there are some useful lessons learned along the path.
- Persistence is key. Blogging can be a pain to be sure, but it really does get easier over time. I often tell clients that are new to blogging that it might seem like pushing a boulder uphill in the short-term but a post that takes you three hours to draft today can be completed in 90 minutes once you’ve done it a dozen times.
- Posting something is better than nothing. Voltaire’s quote, “The perfect is the enemy of the good” applies to blogging. You’re not Shakespeare and you’re not Hemingway. You (and I) are just business people with a unique message to share. This is not to say that you should throw quality standards out the window. Be clear, be clean and be helpful and every once in a while, one of your posts can go viral. But you need to put your content in play for it to be seen by anyone. In other words: No excuses – just do it!
- Be bold, fresh and relevant. It is tempting to write about stuff that has been around for some time, but you will get way more attention if you find a fresh angle to a topic of current interest. And make sure you are adding real value, not just rehashing what the reader can learn at a dozen other websites.
- Add a dose of personality. While you need to stay businesslike, readers want to know they are hearing from someone who is likeable and forthright. A bit of humor and irreverence is good but don’t overdo this to the point you turn off your audience. Most important: be yourself. Your unique voice is what people want to hear.
- Remain consistent. Consistency is important in two ways. First, in terms of your content. You want to be known for one or a couple of topic areas (in my case, B2B marketing and lead-to-revenue), not for having an opinion about everything. Consistency area two is to set a workable blogging schedule and stick to it. Resist the urge to post a bunch of blogs in a short time period. I call this a flame-out – when a company posts 3-6 blogs in a span of a few weeks, and then stops posting. It looks unprofessional. Instead, set a reasonable schedule (even 1-2 times per month is okay to start) and stick to this relentlessly. You can pick up the pace as your comfort level increases.
- Pay attention to the critical details. Writing the content is the hard part but there are a few things you can do to drive more attention, including:
- Add a relevant image. Images are important for search purposes and to grab reader attention. Please be sure to license the image or get permission for its use.
- Always add categories, tags and meta descriptions. This will make your post easier to find. Click here for a great article on how to craft effective meta descriptions. As an example, here is the meta description I used for this post: “Follow these seven lessons to ensure blogging success in terms of readership and impact”.
- Cite your sources. You can certainly use a few words or sentences from someone else’s material without permission, but make sure you acknowledge the source.
- Utilize an editor. I don’t care how good of a writer you are – you can probably benefit from a second pair of eyes for issues like typos, grammar and readability.
- Borrow from smart people. You will be faced with situations when you can’t think of something to write about (join the club!). In this case, find someone else’s article that appeals to you and base your post on this person’s content. Of course, if you are copying entire sections of material, it is best to get permission. Authors love to have you re-purpose their writing and this is a great way to make a new business contact.
I often talk about how B2B marketing and lead-to-revenue (L2R) can be massively beneficial to enabling your sales team to meet its revenue targets. And one of the most important things you can do for sales (and your company) is to reduce the sales cycle. I wrote about this topic in June 2015, but wanted to offer some updated thoughts on the subject.
We define the sales cycle as the time it takes for the average prospect (if there is such a thing!) to progress from initial engagement to close of business. In some industries (e.g. enterprise software or industrial machinery), this cycle can be as long as 12-18 months and requires a large amount of time from the sales team. In others (e.g. Amazon.com), the cycle can be measured in minutes and requires little or no personal time from the seller.
Often, people don’t really know how long their sales cycle is — only describing it as “long” or “too long”. The problem is, you can’t improve what you can’t measure. A manual way to find this out is to take the last 20 or so deals and calculate the average sales cycle by determining the length of time between first contact by your sales team and close of the sale.
Note that it’s important not to confuse the length of the buying cycle with the sales cycle. Prospects may be doing research, perusing your website, reading reviews, etc., for some time before they engage with someone at your company. The traditional sales model utilized reps at every stage of the process, leading to much longer sales cycles.
As the below graphic shows – today’s prospect will often engage with you only after completing several of the initial steps themselves. They will have self-qualified, conducted their own needs assessment and educated themselves at least somewhat on the attributes, pricing and other details about your offer.
The point is that by the time prospects engage with someone on your sales team, they are often several steps along the purchase path and thus the effective sales cycle is reduced by 50 percent or more. Many of the people who came to your website have decided on their own that your solution is not right for their needs — they have disqualified themselves or postponed their decision. This is perfectly okay and assuming they have opted in for one of your offers, you get the chance to nurture them over time and perhaps make a sale in the future.
So how can you accomplish shrinkink the sales cycle while maintaining a strong close rate? In addition to your digital marketing initiatives, here are six effective strategies that have been shown to have positive impact:
- Identify target segments carefully. This is important because the more time sales reps spend with people/companies that are legitimate prospects, the more successful they will be.
- Deliver qualified leads. There are two ways to do this. First, by being very specific about who your product/service is best suited for (the prospect self-qualification model). Second, by implementing a lead qualification filter to keep unqualified prospects away from the sales team. You can do this with an automated lead-scoring system (less expensive) or with a more expensive but also more effective personal lead qualification process.
- Present a powerful message. As with our first two strategies, the idea is to attract the right prospects and let the others go before they use valuable rep time. Your brand promise, value proposition and benefits must be compelling, differentiated and crystal clear. You can find many good ideas on how to do this by downloading this paper on Brand Awareness.
- Understand the buyer’s “compelling events”. By this, I mean the factors that are most likely to lead to a sale. What are the triggers that can motivate the buyer to purchase now? What are the consequences if they decide not to change? How can we put our offer(s) in front of the prospect when the motivations and/or consequences are greatest?
- Let your website do some of the heavy lifting. As illustrated by the second sales process graphic above, the right website content can assist prospects at three or more stages of the buying journey. Particularly useful content includes frequently asked questions (FAQs), product specifications, pricing (if that fits your sales model) and how-to guides (both how to use and how to buy).
- Provide the right sales enablement tools. By sales enablement tools, I mean anything that helps sales reps educate prospects or themselves, overcome objections, move the sales process forward and capture relevant information. Examples include product training, sales training, competitive analyses and a “knowledge base” of instantly available content.
Follow these half dozen strategies and watch your sales cycle shrink and your overall results dramatically improve.
Being a smaller fish in a pond full of big fish can be a daunting position. Fortunately, there are a few advantages to being the underdog. First of all, your competitor probably doesn’t know you as well as you know them (see below). You can pivot on a dime where it takes the big company much longer. Also, you can often fly under the radar and implement new targeting, messaging and media before they know you exist.
From a digital marketing standpoint, here are some of the options you have when faced with larger competitors:
- Give up. No, I am not being funny here. There are situations when the competitor has so much marketing firepower (dollars and people) that you have little chance of moving the needle in your favor. In such cases, a strategic retreat is not such a bad idea.
- Compete on price. This is an oft-used strategy that usually backfires. It makes you out to be a ‘commodity’ player and you still don’t get a fraction of the mindshare of the big company.
- Take a head-on approach. Sometimes, the best option is to analyze the competitor’s weakness and attack this loudly and publically. I worked for an enterprise software company where we successfully used this tactic to take on a company 12 times our size. It worked because the industry giant had issued a new release that had more bugs than new features.
- Be a specialist, not a generalist. This is the niche marketing, “go where they aren’t” strategy and it is the one that I usually recommend.
Before going to war against a large competitor, it’s vital that you thoroughly understand the battlefield. As Sun Tzu stated in The Art of War “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Keeping this sage advice in mind, one of the things you need to know about your competitor is how they are using digital marketing. What are they saying, to whom and on which media? For clients, we often do in-depth research on our their competitors’ usage of both paid and non-paid media. This can produce some very useful insights and help us target our efforts where the opportunity is strong and the other company is weakest. We also take a close look at what is being said in cyberspace about our product and/or services area. This is real, roll-up-your-sleeves work, not just quick analysis made on a few Google searches.
Digital marketing has a broad definition, so we’ll save the detailed how-to discussions for later. But you had best analyze all the tools and media available and choose a few that you can really focus on, instead of being very shallow in many media. As an example, we have a client in the B2B services space that is putting 90 percent of its efforts (and budget) in just four areas of digital marketing:
- Highly relevant content related to its niche market (including consistent blogging).
- Compelling landing pages that convert at over two times the industry average.
- Tightly targeted (and long-tail) pay-per-click promotions with a cost-per-click (CPC) of about 40% of what competitors are paying for more generic search terms.
- LinkedIn content, company and showcase pages, and sponsored InMail.
By the way, last month Merkle released its Q4 2016 Digital Marketing Report analyzing trends across paid search, social media, display and organic search, while providing highly regarded insights into the performance of major industry players like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo. It’s worth a read.
Have you listened to what your peers (and bosses) say is keeping them up at night? We did.
Today my company is making a podcast available to the public that captures my live, January 19 radio interview with Jim Obermeyer of the Sales Lead Management Association. We discussed my company’s research on lead-to-revenue strategy in the age of digital disruption, plus our 2017 State of the Industry Report: B2B Marketing and Lead-to-Revenue.
I’ve been a public speaker for decades and have been a guest on numerous national and international programs discussing everything from marketing and sales strategies for SaaS software companies to how my local business association can create more jobs in the region. But I’ve rarely enjoyed a chance to communicate more.
Sales Complains, Marketing Disdains?
Jim and I think about and act upon these topics all day, every day. Some of the topics we discussed were hard to talk about, chiefly because they represent the customer pain points that we see over and over again when dealing with B2B marketers. Our new survey research uncovered why these problems are perennial and, frankly, a little bit exhausting to tackle year over year, quarter over quarter (except, of course, when we get to solve them for our clients). Here are some of the chief issues:
- Only 41% of respondent companies were somewhat or very satisfied with the amount of leads generated by the marketing teams. Why do sales teams complain so much about both lead quantity and quality? And what is preventing marketers from solving this issue once and for all?
- Why do marketers have to come up with new and even more compelling KPIs to justify their existence? What can we measure (conversion rates, brand awareness) that will actually get us more budget next year instead of less?
- What can be done to alleviate the “ineffectiveness of lead management” that so many B2B companies are struggling to overcome? Is the solution more technology, better people or more efficient processes (or perhaps all three)?
We were a little surprised about what our survey said people were spending on marketing in relation to revenue—and that it mostly fell in line with industry standards as outlined by Gartner. We also engaged in a discussion about the “red-flag” warnings that tell marketers when they have lead conversion issues that will drive up their costs to acquire customers (CAC). CAC is a common KPI that most research respondents noted was flat or would only rise slightly in the year to come.
I also shared with Jim what was perhaps most disappointing about our research findings: The fact that (as alluded to above) a majority of companies felt that they are lacking in three huge indicators of B2B success: marketplace awareness, sufficient lead flow and sales and marketing alignment.
I was happy to be a part of a broadcast that challenged and galvanized me about the topics that I have spent a lifetime learning to tackle. Although the survey results were a bit discouraging, my plan for 2017 is to challenge myself, our team and our clients to become better and better at what we do. You can now download the podcast and see for yourself how we did. I hope you enjoy listening as much as I enjoyed participating. Please download a copy of the survey report and let me know your thoughts.
The sales “closer” has an almost mythical reputation in the annals of business. Movies like Tin Men, Boiler Room, Door to Door and Wall Street show how the most successful at the craft of selling are also the most devious. A review of Elmer Gantry, produced in 1960, stated, “Elmer is a traveling Salesman, a con man, drunkard and a bum, but this guy could sell a ticket to the slaughterhouse to a suckling pig, make that a season’s pass, he was that good.” And anyone who has seen Glengarry Glen Ross remembers the famous Alec Baldwin scene where he tells the character played by Jack Lemmon, “Put that coffee down. Coffee’s for closers only.”
Sam Mallikarjunan, who works at HubSpot and writes for ThinkGrowth.org, wrote a really good article about this subject titled The Closer Is Dead. Long Live The Listener. There is a lot of good advice to be found in Sam’s article, but I can give you the gist in one quote: “The sales rep that doesn’t try to ‘control the process’ but instead functions as the objective trusted adviser to the prospect’s process is the sales rep that wins deals.”
While the hard-sell approach works in the movies, and perhaps in a bygone era, the days of the high-pressure closer are numbered. As HubSpot’s analysis shows, all the things we used to associate with being a great sales rep — such as being a convincing “closer” — actually hurt your chances of hitting quota long term. If you actually did what hard-selling proponents urge, your reps and company will make less money and have a much harder time holding onto customers.
As I said in my December 6 post, your focus should be on the buying process. Universal access to information and the amount of competition in almost every industry have empowered buyers much more than in the past. The fact is that most people like to buy, but very few of us like to be sold. So why not change your paradigm from “selling people stuff” to “helping people buy”? This might sound like a subtle distinction, but I assure you, it is not.
To make this clearer, here are some words that define how the new and effective sales rep approaches the B2B sales function:
By contrast, here are some words that describe the mindset of the ineffective B2B sales rep – the high-pressure closer:
How Marketing can Support the New Sales Model
A key question for the marketing types who are reading this post is: What can we do to support a sales model that is based on guidance, coaching and education, and less on mastering high-pressure sales techniques? Here are five suggestions:
- Give prospects what they want – not what you think they need. Potential buyers do a lot of their research online and if you don’t supply the right information (product specs, reviews, use cases, pricing, etc.) at the right place in their buying journey, they will move on to your competitors’ websites. Holding back is usually counterproductive.
- Give sales reps what they want. When sales reps tell you that they want more or less of X, Y or Z, try to give them the benefit of the doubt. Their commission checks and even continuing employment, depends on making sales – they take this quite seriously.
- Make sure your messaging is crystal clear. Sales reps that represent companies with poor messaging face a tough burden. If the prospect doesn’t quickly (instantly) grasp that you are at least a potential solution, they won’t stick around to figure out what you do and how it benefits them. We see too many elevator pitches and brand statements that are totally ambiguous – don’t let this be true about yours.
- Establish a firm set of expectations with your sales counterparts. To do this, create a service-level agreement (SLA) that outlines exactly who is going to do what at every stage of the process.
- Revisit your lead-to-revenue (L2R) model. Don’t be afraid to challenge assumptions about how your company has been marketing and selling. While consistency is important, watch out for “we’ve always done it this way” syndrome. Read my 2015 article on this subject titled, Does Your B2B Sales Model Need an Overhaul or a Tune-up?
The “helping prospects buy” culture is not only easier on all concerned, it is also a better mindset to generate revenue and repeat customers. Make it a key part of your 2017 planning process.
One of the most frustrating things about being a B2B marketing and/or sales professional is that there are circumstances and environmental factors totally outside your control. I’ve seen truly great people seemingly stuck in situations where they are set up for failure.
Medium.com had an interesting article from Larry Kim titled “11 Things You Can’t Change, So Quit Wasting Your Time Trying.” Kim stated that no matter the method you use (e.g., working harder, caring more), “The fact is, there are some things you just can’t change, no matter how hard you try.” I enjoyed the article because it reflects a hard truth I teach future entrepreneurs in my SBA and SCORE classes — to stay within their own zone of control.
This below graphic illustrates the zone of control. At the bottom is a list of a few of the things you have total personal control over. For example, you decide how hard you work and the skills you will develop to enhance your marketplace value. The middle section contains items you can influence but not necessarily control, like the overall messaging, your budget, and your boss. The outer circle consists of items you have little or no control over: The economy, technology, government, etc., are going where they are going and chances are, you have no opportunity to impact them. In other words, if the train is heading in a certain direction, you had best either hop on or watch it pass, instead of standing in front of it.
So, hard fact number one is that you should operate in your zones of control and influence. Here are some additional facts that B2B marketing and sales professionals must face:
1. It’s usually not personal. When the CEO criticizes the new website design, or the VP of sales complains about the lack (or quality) of leads, they have their own reasons that are usually not connected to personal animosity toward you. Disliking your performance on something is not the same as disliking you.
2. You can’t always win. There are scenarios where the odds are so stacked against you, you are unlikely to achieve success. For example:
a. A flawed business model that is not financially viable.
b. An un-coachable owner/CEO who would rather be right than successful (sadly, there are such individuals).
c. A product that is deeply flawed and/or not ready for the market.
d. A highly dysfunctional management team.
3. You should quit focusing on the ones that got away. All of us who have been in marketing or sales for any length of time understand that no matter how talented/clever we are, many prospects will say no to even our best offers. Best you reconcile yourself to this to avoid undue anxiety.
4. Life is not fair. If your mom or dad taught you this lesson early in your life, you should thank them. Attaching yourself emotionally to a certain outcome means that you will spend at least some of your time in a dark place.
5. Great strategy won’t produce results without cooperation. I’ve seen brilliant concepts that could produce significant revenue shot down because of the unreasonableness of one or more parties. Regardless of motivation of the stubborn party, when you are faced with this situation, it’s sometimes best to cut your losses and move to the next idea.
You no doubt have your own list of unpleasant facts. I hope you accept them, and do what you need to do to have a healthy and prosperous 2017.
We just published our 2017 B2B Marketing and Lead-to-Revenue Trends Report, available for download here. At the close of each calendar year, I publish a trends report detailing what our team sees as the important topics in B2B marketing and L2R. This year, in addition to our personal analysis, we’ve included data from 1425 respondents who work in B2B marketing and sales, the majority (62%) of which are at the VP level or above. We’ve also cross-validated this information with data and opinions from noted industry analysts and thought leaders. We found remarkable similarity between survey responses, what industry leaders like Forrester, Gartner and Forbes are saying and our own experiences and data from client engagements. We are also grateful to our survey partner CustomerThink for helping us to get the word out to their large subscriber base.
So what are the big takeaways from this initiative? For one thing, a majority of companies report that they are not generating enough leads to meet their revenue targets. Probably no big surprise – I’ve worked at companies where lead flow was strong and yet, people were complaining about a “lack of leads”. What they mean is that they want their leads to be qualified and ready to purchase in the near future. This is the inevitable tension between lead quantity and lead quality. It’s fine to have plenty of lead flow, but not so fine if the vast majority of inbound inquiries are unqualified and will never buy what you are selling.
Another disconcerting result is that 62 percent of respondents report that their companies spend less than 10 percent of revenue on marketing (including personnel, technology and program expenses). There is no doubt that the strongest and most profitable companies drive growth through compelling and relentless marketing. If you truly believe (and I hope you do) that marketing has a big impact on revenue, you are doing your company a favor by helping them invest in an area that will have many positive benefits downstream.
Our survey also showed that companies will increase 2017 spending on two key areas that impact growth: marketing automation technology and content marketing. Some of us are already fully engaged in these practices and are now in optimization mode, but a surprising number of companies are still taking baby steps. Regardless, smart companies invest in what works and try to get there before the competition does.
Finally, what are your peers and competitors most interested in measuring in 2017? Given a long list of potential KPIs, our survey respondents say they are focusing on these three, in priority order:
- Tracking sales performance (e.g. close rates) – 76.27 percent of respondents.
- Qualified lead conversions – 64 percent of respondents.
- Measuring website performance – 53 percent of respondents.
While it’s too late for you to take the survey, you can review the results by downloading the report. We designed the survey and report to provide you with actionable information and help you improve what you are doing in B2B marketing and sales. Most importantly, it is my hope and expectation that you will have a better 2017 than 2016.
Those of us who have worked in B2B sales and marketing for some time agree that the rules have changed. But what exactly are the new rules and how do they differ from the traditional way of doing things?
Rule 1: Selling is not just “Telling”. As a marketing professional, I always made it a point to understand what my company’s sales staff was learning – so I have attended several internal sales training programs where reps were taught how to identify, engage, nurture and close prospects. Sometimes, this is taught from a linear perspective – First you take step A, then B, etc., until you close the business. But smart sales reps know that the answer is not to find someone who will listen to you, then pitch, demo, re-pitch and so forth. In last year’s B2B sales and marketing trends report, I talked about the “fuzzy funnel” and how prospects enter and exit the sales process in many different ways. You need to prepare for every scenario.
Rule 2: Your focus should be on the buying process. Universal access to information and the amount of competition in almost every industry have empowered buyers much more than in the past. The fact is that most people like to buy but very few of us like to be sold. So why not change your paradigm from “selling people stuff” to “helping people buy”? This might sound like a subtle distinction but I assure you it is not.
Rule 3: Your website should do a lot of the heavy lifting. You can find a ton of information online regarding how much time prospects spend online researching products/solutions before engaging with a sales rep. Of course this depends on the industry but it can range from a low of 10-20 percent to as high as 90 percent. Regardless, this is a number that is going to increase over time so get your cyber act in order. Create and publish content that educates prospects and brings them closer to engagement.
Rule 4: Hiding your information is counterproductive. B2B companies are reluctant to share too much information for two primary reasons: 1. Competitors will steal it. 2. Prospects will use the information to build their own solution. But the fact is, there is a lot of information about your topic area in cyberspace and if prospects don’t find it from you, they will do so from your competitor, and even worse, buy from the competitor. Just remember the mantra, “The more you share, the more you receive. The less you share, the less you receive.”
Rule 5: Nurturing is as important as selling. Our client research has shown that among inbound inquiries, there are usually as many prospects who will buy in the future (e.g. after six months or more) as will purchase in the short-term (e.g. 30-90 days). In other words, the ability to stay in touch and feed suspects relevant information on a periodic basis can be just as lucrative as the ability to sell your current hot prospects today.
Rule 6: Prepare for disruption. Lots of companies have had their products and/or marketing and sales models disrupted. Sometimes the impact is minor or moderate (e.g. moving some part of sales to the web) and other times it is massive (Uber, AirBnB, self-driving cars). But as the book title suggests, you need to Disrupt Yourself before someone else disrupts your business. You do this by testing your hypotheses, processes, pricing, and so forth, before you are forced to do so.
Of course, these rules are suggested guidelines and not meant to be sacrosanct. As Richard Branson said, “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”