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. 

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