In the 1980s and 1990s there was no painter more real and relat­able than Bob Ross. His PBS show The Joy of Paint­ing taught count­less view­ers how to tackle seem­ingly chal­leng­ing paint­ings by break­ing them down into sim­ple brush strokes. Dur­ing his show’s 11-year run, this action­able approach to cre­at­ing art—along with his unruly afro—brought the how-to pro­gram to icon sta­tus. Accord­ing to Ross, all you needed to “make beau­ti­ful things hap­pen on can­vas” was some desire and some practice—the rest would just flow.

I’m not much of a painter, but I always loved Ross’s mes­sage. What’s more, it’s never been clearer to me that his words have infi­nite appli­ca­tions beyond the can­vas, espe­cially for mar­keters. Think about his three core steps to cre­at­ing a masterpiece:

  1. Prime your canvas
  2. Use broad brush strokes
  3. Fill in the details

It’s that simple—prime, go broad, and fill in later—for both art and optimization.

The allure of Ross’s method was that it took some­thing seem­ingly unat­tain­able (unless you’re truly gifted or highly trained) and broke it down into bite-size, achiev­able steps, demys­ti­fy­ing the entire process from start to fin­ish. Sure, you won’t get there overnight, but with some deter­mi­na­tion, prac­tice, and com­mit­ment to improve, you’ll be paint­ing stun­ning land­scapes soon enough.  

This past week at the Adobe Sum­mit EMEA in Lon­don I pre­sented “Trans­form your dig­i­tal strat­egy with always-on opti­mi­sa­tion,” with Peter Ciepiela and Willem Cor­bijn, the Netherlands-based opti­miza­tion team from Philips, and Bob Ross was an inte­gral piece of their mes­sage. All too often I’m con­fronted with mar­keters who are unwa­ver­ing in the belief that large-scale opti­miza­tion and per­son­al­iza­tion ini­tia­tives are sim­ply out of their league—leave those wow-worthy pro­grams to the Mar­riotts and Lenovos of the world.

When brain­storm­ing dur­ing the devel­op­ment of our Sum­mit pre­sen­ta­tion, it became clear to me and the Philips guys that the Bob Ross method was the per­fect metaphor for com­pa­nies tack­ling optimization. Ross’s core mes­sage was that you don’t have to be a pro to get it right. Just break it down into pieces you can tackle, and the com­plex sud­denly isn’t so tough. The Joy of Paint­ing drove this home week after week, remind­ing view­ers that impres­sive end results aren’t only reserved for the nat­u­rally gifted or highly trained. And it’s not just about art—optimization is the same. To get it right in paint­ing or in opti­miza­tion you just need to prime your can­vas, use broad brush strokes, and fill in the details. Break it down into smaller, sim­pler pieces and go at it step by step.

Think about your opti­miza­tion approach and cam­paign roll out through Ross’s lens.

Start by prim­ing your canvas

What data exists about your cus­tomers? What test­ing, opti­miza­tion, and per­son­al­iza­tion capa­bil­i­ties do you have in place—and what’s work­ing (and what’s not)? What are the goals of the orga­ni­za­tion, your clients, or par­tic­i­pat­ing brands? What resources are aligned or could be aligned with your cam­paign ini­tia­tives? Ask your­self the basic ques­tions, do a gut check of your site and related plat­forms, and get that canvas—your site—primed for action.

A good place to start is the Adobe Opti­miza­tion Matu­rity Self-Assessment Tool. This comprehensive—and free—tool was designed to help busi­nesses iden­tify their oper­a­tional strengths and weak­nesses in all things opti­miza­tion, carv­ing out tar­geted pri­or­i­ties and next steps as they relate to the six core opti­miza­tion dimen­sions: cul­ture, strat­egy, orga­ni­za­tion, lead­er­ship, exe­cu­tion, and reach. I posted on the model ear­lier this year, so lots there—but, in a nut­shell, this tool was cre­ated after a seven-year-long exhaus­tive review of Adobe clients in all areas of indus­try, and was built to serve as a bench­mark­ing tool for orga­ni­za­tions big and small. The best way to prime your can­vas is to know where you stand as an artist—or, in this case, a marketer—and have a clear-cut goal of where you want to be. But don’t hold back once the bench­mark­ing is com­plete. That’s your jumping-off point. Your final mas­ter­piece can be infi­nitely greater.

Use broad brush strokes

No mat­ter the nature of your site, most visitors—virtually all, by some estimates—will be anony­mous. And just 2 per­cent will ever progress to “cus­tomer” sta­tus, so you’ll be shoot­ing in the dark to some extent when­ever a new vis­i­tor arrives at your site. The chal­lenges of per­son­al­iz­ing expe­ri­ences for anony­mous vis­i­tors are clear, sure, but so is the neces­sity of mean­ing­ful expe­ri­ences, even if I can’t greet you by name at the dig­i­tal door.

Like Ross said, step two is about using broad brush strokes. Just because you don’t know a par­tic­u­lar vis­i­tor and his or her expressed or indi­cated pref­er­ences, you know some­thing about the indi­vid­ual. Min­i­mally, you have geolo­ca­tion infor­ma­tion as well as how the vis­i­tor arrived at your site—search, direct, email marketing—and what type of device and browser the per­son is using. Don’t dis­count that crit­i­cal infor­ma­tion. Think about the notion of per­sona–lization—the broad brush strokes of the opti­miza­tion world—and see if you can bucket anony­mous vis­i­tors into pro­files that some­what resem­ble them, at least to start.

Fill in the details

As your anony­mous vis­i­tor moves through your site, a pro­file begins to emerge. Maybe you don’t know this par­tic­u­lar per­son, but you know some­one sim­i­lar. Make those broad brush strokes and speak to these larger, more gen­eral seg­ments. When the vis­i­tor is ready to con­vert, be ready to get the goods so his or her next expe­ri­ence with your brand can be that much better—at this point, you can fill in those details.

What starts to emerge is, truly, a mas­ter­piece. Like the professional-grade land­scape paint­ing, you won’t get there overnight. You’ll need to prac­tice, revisit, and con­tin­u­ally look to improve and grow. But by break­ing opti­miza­tion down into a few man­age­able steps you’ll be teed up to build­ing a robust cam­paign of your own. Again, the Opti­miza­tion Matu­rity Self-Assessment Tool can serve as a pow­er­ful aid for reeval­u­at­ing your efforts as you progress.

The Philips approach to opti­miza­tion fol­lowed this approach. The com­pany serves as an endur­ing suc­cess story all mar­keters can look to. As Philips ramped up its efforts, the com­pany focused on eas­ily achieved wins, small tasks, and sim­pler tests that could drive home how crit­i­cal opti­miza­tion was and could be to the greater orga­ni­za­tion. From here, secur­ing buy-in from exec­u­tive man­age­ment was the next log­i­cal step, and with the goods to back up the ask, the mar­ket­ing team could lock down the sup­port and engage­ment this ulti­mately large-scale roll­out required. They started with a microsite—deemed lower risk and a wiser testbed—and the wins kept com­ing. The team chose next steps wisely and, as Ross would rec­om­mend, broke down the com­plex into the sim­ple, tack­ling what they could, suc­ceed­ing, then mov­ing on to the next log­i­cal step. It’s pos­i­tively “Rossonian.”

Mar­keters, grab your can­vas and get to it. Artis­tic triumph—and an envi­able ROI—await.