Monday, May 14

Making Bottle Rockets: Plan, Test, Execute

The unceremonious flight of my son's science project took place on the night before the project was due. The bottle rocket that his teacher intended to jettison 20 to 50 feet in the air using water and compressed air sailed through the air on its own, not outside like it was intended, but inside after it was hurled across room in frustration.

"What the heck?!?" 

"It's not working. Humfph,"was all my son said.

He had an ambitious idea to bring more than a neon green 2-liter bottle to school for his experiment, which is a good thing. But he also had the idea to mount the thin edge of his air foil fins to the outside of the bottle, which wasn't such a good thing. There simply wasn't enough surface area on the fin to attach it to the curvature of the bottle. 

That in itself wouldn't have been a big deal. What was a big deal was that it was already 9 p.m. and the project was due the next day. He needed a redesign, which also required me to keep some of my parental angst about procrastination from adding too much insult to injury (although I might have mentioned an X-box vacation; meaning for the X-box, not him). 

Three little words that could save most small business social media programs. 

Plan. Test. Execute. Those three little words that could have saved my son's bottle rocket from suffering the same fate as the Vanguard TV3, which was the first attempt of the United States to launch a rocket into outer space and crashed onto the liftoff pad after flying four feet. It could also save most small business social media programs. 

What my son did to his science project is what most people do in social media. Whatever they see being done looks so easy and effortless that they rush toward completion. But the rub of this kind of thinking is always the same. If it looks so easy that anybody could do it, it's anything but easy. 

This is why social media programs are launched every day without any foresight. Many small businesses (and big businesses too) take the advice of enthusiasts to jump right in for success. But much like the thin edges of a foil fin, they never plan their with enough surface area to stick. 

What surface area am I talking about? Content that connects. If you haven't planned out the kind of content you are offering — articles, videos, white papers, bon mots — and why that content might be important to the people you want to attract, who's going to care about what you share? (Certainly somebody will care, just not the millions that seem to make up most social media success stories.) 

Plan. What topical spheres make sense for your customers? How often will you be able to produce it? What do you intend to do when you don't have anything to produce? How does it contrast against what everybody else is already offering? And what's going to make it stick with your select group?

Test. Just because you can think it, doesn't mean it will work. I still remember one of my marketing teachers (a former engineer) who lamented having built one of the first working hovercrafts in the 1970s. They built and sold a few, just not enough to keep the doors opens. 

Execute. Once you are reasonably sure the idea will work, then you can execute, measure, and adjust. And, if you have enough foresight, it might not be a bad idea to have a contingency plan too. The web's virtual landfills already have too many abandoned blogs and social network accounts. 

For my son, the solution was easy enough. While I feigned disinterest to see what he was going to do, I sketched out three possible solutions. He could glue pre-slotted cardboard panels to the bottle, with the fins sliding into the slots. He could cut the fins, splaying the bottom inch or so to create more surface area. Or he could find clear packing tape that would provide support on both sides of the fin. 

The testing phase ruled out the first two ideas. There was no more cardboard and cutting the fins carried too much risk. Using the clear packaging tape was perfect, maybe even better than anyone hoped. It held the fins in place without obstructing the paint job. For additional stability, he added drops of glue at the top and bottom of all three fins, where they connected to the bottle. Done.

Sure, had he invested more time into the planning, the fins might have even been shaped to be more aerodynamic in order to give his bottle rocket more lift. But considering the quick fix became the contingency plan, he settled for cosmetics. Some social media plans do too, but never as well as they could have if someone had sketched out a plan before they hit 'join.'
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