I don’t have a conscious memory of my first time on a pony, but I do have a photo. In the yellowed picture, I am three-and-a-half years old, wearing a red bandana on my head, and sitting astride a shaggy, black steed named Cricket. The look on my face says it all – this is love. My younger sister is perched behind me wearing a bright yellow sweatshirt and a much less enthusiastic expression.
As I grew older, my fascination with horses grew deeper. By the time I was twelve, I was taking riding lessons. I even got to have a pony live at my house for the summer. “Little Joe,” as he was called, was anything but. Fat and full of attitude, his favorite pastimes included pinning me against the side of the barn, doing a military crawl under the paddock fence (in order to get to the “greener grass” on the other side), and orchestrating midnight escapes that resulted in my whole, pajama-clad family running up and down the drive with carrots and buckets of grain.
When I was in my early thirties, I took up riding again. As an adult, I developed a whole new appreciation for the equestrian arts. My younger self had been caught up in the romance and adventure of riding a horse – but my older self became fascinated with the nuances of communication and cooperation that are the true foundation of good riding.
Last weekend, after a twelve-year hiatus, I mounted up again. I was a little nervous about hopping onboard Traveler for my first lesson in a long time, but the rangy thoroughbred turned out to be very accommodating. More importantly, once I’d settled into the saddle, everything came right back (… to my mind, at least, my body is still lagging slightly behind).
Horsemanship is called an “art” for a reason. Though it requires a great deal of athleticism – strength, balance, agility, and flexibility – it’s more about developing a “feel” and building a relationship with your horse. The most advanced riders make the act appear effortless, but there is actually a subtle and unceasing dialog that takes place between horse and rider.
It is the same with the best marketing.
Find the right connection
For instance, a “soft” hand – one that is elastic and provides for a firm but gentle connection to the bit in the horse’s mouth – helps a rider establish an open and cooperative line of communication. Meanwhile, a horse whose rider constantly yanks and tugs on the reins on will develop a “hard” mouth and become increasingly unresponsive to the rider’s requests.
When building a marketing relationship with your audience, you need to create a “soft” connection and avoid a hard sell. You need to be “elastic” in your engagement – find a give and take that sets you up for a cooperative relationship.
Send the right signals
A rider also has to be very clear about what she wants. You use your “aids” – hand, seat, weight, and voice – to communicate with a horse. If you send conflicting messages, the horse will become confused and even frustrated. For instance, if you’re using your leg to urge the horse forward, but are simultaneously pulling back on the reins, the horse literally won’t know whether he’s coming or going. The result: you’ll get nowhere, fast.
Similarly, when marketing, you need to be clear about your messages. You need to know where you are going (goals, calls to action, etc.) and deliver clear and consistent communications that make it easy for your customers to know what to do next. You also have to be hyper aware of the context and subtext of your content and language. Your messages need to be relevant (a racehorse would be very confused by a rider who asked it to jump a fence) and delivered in the right tone and voice. Small adjustments can make a big difference.
Use “active listening”
Riding is, though it may not look it, a very active pursuit. The rider is never on auto-pilot and neither is the horse. They are always communicating. They are always listening to one another. They “listen” to each other’s voices, movements, and even emotions. A good horse and rider team can “read” each other without even trying. They are always observing each other and responding to each other. There is nothing static about their relationship – the balance is always shifting, back and forth.
Your marketing relationships should reflect the same kind of reciprocity. You are not running the show all by yourself. In fact, it’s not about you at all. Listening carefully and respectfully to your customers and prospects is one the best ways to ensure that your marketing is relevant and successful.
When all the pieces come together, riding is like learning to speak a new language. I never cease to be amazed at the complexity and depth of the “conversation” that I can have with a horse simply by shifting my weight, changing my leg position, or altering my grip on the reins. With enough practice, the transitions become more fluid and the communication becomes more efficient and effective. It also becomes more beautiful to experience and to watch. Ultimately, neither horse nor rider is “in charge.” We are partners, collaborating and cooperating. We support each other – the horse supports me with its strength and back, I support the horse with my guidance, leg, and hand. We complement each other, each relying on the other’s strengths to attain our shared goal.
THAT is what good marketing is like. It’s like decoding a foreign language and suddenly being able to understand the natives. It’s about creating a balanced partnership built on cooperation, trust, and – yes – even affection. The end result is a mutually beneficial relationship that comes naturally and has the strength to withstand time, competition, and the occasional bump in the road. Investing the time in good marketing means that you and your customer will have each other’s backs and be in this thing together.