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Why marketing needs to be scientific

One day, back when my daughter was four, we told her that she was going to the dentist, and she got so excited. It seemed an odd reaction, but we never questioned it. After all, considerably less sometimes brings excitement to kids that age. As we walked out of dentist’s office following the appointment, she brightly asked, “OK, so where is the birthday party?”


We were a bit puzzled at the question, telling her that there wasn’t any birthday party, which disappointed her, as you might expect, and then we set to wondering why she made that connection.
It was only later that we realized that six months before, when she had her very first dental appointment, that she immediately went from the dentist’s office to a birthday party. So, her toddler mind had connected those two events as tightly as any other cause-and-effect she had observed. She had decided that all dental appointments conclude with birthday parties (which might actually be a better incentive to see the dentist, now that I think of it).
Why do I bring this up? Because it shows how human beings strive so hard to make sense of the world—we’re wired for it, which is how a four-year-old can do it so naturally. Even when faced with complete coincidences, we humans try to connect things into a sensible pattern. Unfortunately, a lot of events are random—noise, essentially—and don’t fit into any pattern.
And Internet marketing is no different. Without applying some rigor to what we do, we’re likely to connect a lot of birthday parties to dental appointments. And we’ll keep repeating the equivalent of trips to the dentist in our marketing for quiite awhile—which can be rather painful.
To prevent us from drawing lots of dubious conclusions, we need to use scientific methods. We need testing. We need to separate the data from the noise.
But how do you do that?

  • Decide on your metrics. Your favorite might be return on investment, but if it’s profit or revenue instead, fine. Just pick your success factor ahead of time and rigorously measure it after every marketing decision you make.
  • Let your metrics be your guide. This, for many, is the hard part. When you do something really cool and the metrics tank, stop. When that campaign you just love fails, kill it. When the dumb idea the intern came up with takes off, do more of it. If you regularly feel embarrassed and stupid about what the numbers tell you, then you’re doing it right.
  • Super-charge your metrics. Don’t settle for “change then measure” testing. Use A/B testing to pit two alternatives against each other to choose the best. Or, better, use multivariate testing to try out dozens, hundreds, or thousands of alternatives to pick the very best. The testing is easy—the hard part is coming up with all those ideas. But think about how much faster you’ll find the best one.

Metrics aren’t perfect—they can certainly lead you astray sometimes, when you rely on small sample sizes or you just get plain bad luck. But more often than not you’ll be led in the right direction, which our feeble human brains can’t compete with. Save your brain for analyzing what the metrics say rather than doing correlation analysis. Then, it will be time to throw a party.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in internet marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, a leading digital media marketing consultancy based in New York City. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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Discussion

  1. Avatar Bluetooth

    Yes indeed Metrics most of the times except the small sample size lead to effective results indeed! The cause and effect relationship as depicted by you in the dentist-birthday party example reveals the weakness of the correlation analysis method. Thanks a lot.

  2. Avatar Giles Palmer

    Terrific post Mike. What you say contains many powerful messages. For instance – Google is at its heart a connection machine. Using the power of link analysis, it generates better keyword matches than other search engines (or used to). There are many other connections that can be made and the dentist/party one is fantastic.
    Top stuff.
    Best wishes
    Giles

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