Establishing digital bullets to identify marketing cannonballs

The concept of caution in digital marketing

We’d like to hazard a reasonable guess and assume that not many people reading this article are trained soldiers. It’s likely that none of us has actually seen battle at all unless it’s at home when the toilet seat is left up! (But that’s a whole different conversation.)

So when we talk about the concept of firing bullets, then cannonballs in a business setting it’s totally reasonable to expect a sea of blank faces and some uncomfortable muttering about confusing metaphors.

However, the concept of firing bullets first, and then cannonballs, is a critical element of business in general, and more specifically, of digital marketing.

Defining the concept of bullets then cannonballs

While we’d love to lay claim to this exceptional concept, credit must go to Jim Collins who developed this thought in his book Great By Choice.

Pulling an excerpt from his book, we uncover the precept behind the headline:

“Picture yourself at sea, a hostile ship bearing down on you. You have a limited amount of gunpowder. You take all your gunpowder and use it to fire a big cannonball. The cannonball flies out over the ocean…and misses the target, off by 40 degrees. You turn to your stockpile and discover that you’re out of gunpowder. You die.

“But suppose instead that when you see the ship bearing down, you take a little bit of gunpowder and fire a bullet. It misses by 40 degrees. You make another bullet and fire. It misses by 30 degrees. You make a third bullet and fire, missing by only 10 degrees. The next bullet hits—ping!—the hull of the oncoming ship. Now, you take all the remaining gunpowder and fire a big cannonball along the same line of sight, which sinks the enemy ship. You live.”

The full message can be found in his video here:


What does this concept look like in business?

Soldier or not, the idea is a fascinatingly simple one.

If we have a business concept that we feel has merit and we want to launch it into the market, we would do well to do so incrementally; testing ideas, designs, and strategies until we see what is working and what is not.

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In this way our successes may be small, but so will our failures. The needle may only move a little, but if it’s moving in the right direction then we’re on the right track.

This makes perfect sense to us; the logic is sound.

So, at the risk of sounding condescending, why in the world are we spending time talking about it if it’s that obvious?

Simply because we are flooded with news and information about overnight success stories, social media posts about visionaries who have woken up one day and done great things and bold steps taken by average people that are changing the world.

Is there truth to these tales?


But the raw fact of the matter is that most of us will have to try several strategies over a period of time in order to succeed. We’ll probably lose money, suffer disappointment and criticism, change tactics, change team or waste valuable time on what we perceive as failures. (Do we need to mention Thomas Edison and his oft-told light bulb example here?)

We get the point.

Firing bullets in digital marketing

Digital marketing, as a concept, is based around finding the right people at the right time and serving them the right message for where they are in their journey.

Can you see a problem with this?

Here’s the thing; one of the trickiest considerations that business people (and their marketing partners) face is the ‘human element’ when it comes to deciphering what people need.

Therefore, when you are mapping out a marketing strategy you need to know, at a minimum:

  • Who you’re talking to
  • What they want
  • Where they are online
  • What language they use
  • Where they are in their journey
  • When are they likely to engage

Digital marketing bullets

This critical knowledge will form the foundation of your marketing plan as it will dictate how you speak, where and when you advertise, your image choice, your timing and frequency and so much more.

A little self-examination may be in order here: can you answer these above questions with total confidence?

It’s fair to say that very few people – especially those involved in a new business venture – will have the information that they need to absolutely guarantee the success of their marketing efforts.

To close the loop on the bullets then cannonballs analogy, understanding that we may not have all the knowledge we need should encourage us to tread cautiously.

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How to fire digital bullets?

On a practical level, how can we ensure the survival and growth of our business by making use of Mr Collins’ concept?

Your choice of channels, messaging and spend will vary depending on your product or service. Therefore, we feel it would be more useful to highlight here what not to do.

  1. Don’t assume that everyone wants or needs your product. Rather take the time to clearly define your ideal audience and carefully note down who would benefit the most from your product.
  2. Don’t commit to a long-term marketing strategy until you have eliminated the guesswork and you know what will work and what ROI you can expect.
  3. Don’t choose a social platform until you understand them all, and know how much of your ideal audience engages on that platform.
  4. Don’t ignore the failures of your small forays into a new market, segment, or platform. If it fails when it’s small, it’ll likely fail when you scale it up.
  5. Don’t try to remember your processes and decision. Rather, keep careful note of the details of each campaign including dates, times, imagery, content, etc.

Listen carefully for that clear ping!

Digital marketing canonball

When you hear it, you will know that your approach is sound, that your consistent testing and measuring has paid off, and that you can now bring out the cannonballs. Ensuring that your digital marketing budget is being spent wisely offers an enormous peace of mind.

The true beauty of cannonballs

We’ve heard so many business owners complain that they just don’t have the budget to get involved with digital marketing.

We have a thought on this.

Digital marketing is not an expense!

No, the money that you spend on promoting your business should offer a sound return which makes marketing not an expense, but an investment in the growth of your company.

If your bullets have delivered a 4:1 ROI, then your cannonball will do the same – with fantastic results.


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