Hiding Behind The Veil Of Experimentation

As the early Baby Boomers (or should I just say people born between 1945 and 1955) come of presidential age, we’re sure to hear more politicians admit to having “experimented” with marijuana in their college days.

As if experimenting makes that OK. Is it OK to “experiment” with grand theft auto? How about “experimenting” with treason? OK, fine, those aren’t fair comparisons. And my point here isn’t political, but marketing-related.

My take: Too many marketers (online marketers, in particular) are deploying questionable tactics, hiding behind a veil of “experimentation.” Example: User-generated content campaigns.

I don’t doubt that a large bank that’s currently running a UGC campaign will succeed in pulling in a thousand, if not a couple of thousand, entries. But I can’t help but wonder if they’ve established targets for and are measuring:

  • The mix of entries from prospects and existing customers
  • How many prospects are converted to customers
  • The up-sell/cross-sell success for customers who submit entries

And I also wonder what marketing would say if the CEO or CFO asked:

What other potential initiatives — which were not funded — were deemed less important than this one, and why?

A marketing exec at the bank said (on another blog) “this is a test, so we’re not certain either how it will turn out, but we feel it’s worth a try.”

Worth a try based on what? A desire to be one of the cool kids? To be able to say “we’re a cool brand because we did a UGC campaign”?

It isn’t only the lack of economic rationale that’s bothering me here, but a more fundamental issue which is prevalent in all-too-many marketing departments: The absence of a rigorous test-and-learn discipline.

I’m all for “experimenting” (in a marketing context, that is). But a marketing group that creates a disciplined test-and-learn agenda establishes key questions that it wants to find the answers to.

Understanding whether or not consumers who submit entries into a UGC contest are good (better?) candidates for acquisition/cross-sell may very well be a valid question. But I’m willing to bet that: 1) most firms have more burning questions to address, and 2) the bank in question did not establish this question as part of a test-and-learn agenda.

Experimentation is not a way out of accountability. And considering the accountability issues that so many marketing groups face today, hiding behind a veil of experimentation doesn’t make things better.

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10 thoughts on “Hiding Behind The Veil Of Experimentation

  1. Ron,

    Once again, you’ve lifted the curtain, revealed that, for the gazillionth time, the emperor is pants-less, and made me feel guilty as charged, all at the same time.

    It’s a good thing. Leading a marketer/communicator to rethink a fundamental concept almost always leads to good outcomes.

  2. OK- off topic, political leanings aside, maybe the age definition of those Boomers considered to be “of presidential age” needs to be widened a bit? Since Obama was born in 19….61.(And yes, he did experiment.)

  3. @Mary: As someone who is older than Obama (albeit, just one year), I have a tough time considering myself to be “of presidential age”. Unless it’s president of the young republicans club. 🙂

    But you are right about widening that band — I was trying to be conservative (with the age estimate, not with the politics).

  4. It’s a good reminder to think about the purpose, goals and measurements for our experiments. Thinking like a scientist, as it were. (I have all of that set for our upcoming experiment….)

    Also, Gen X is, technically, getting to presidential age. The legal lower limit is 35…so that covers anyone born before 19…72. Not that we elect anybody that young anymore, but still.

    I was watching a PBS show about John & Abigail Adams and found myself boggled/humbled: Jefferson was 33 years old when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. The same age I am. Whew.

  5. Yea, but Ron, when you don’t have any accountability for all the other Marketing spend, why would you even think of creating a measurable outcome for your “test” in the first place?

  6. @Jim: Why? Because…um….well…..you see….ok, because: 1) accountability has to start SOMEWHERE, and 2) I think UGC is dumb. (nothing like burying THAT statement in a comment where hopefully nobody sees it)

  7. This is similar to a question I’ve been wrestling with: “What is the return on ‘being innovative’?” And not just with respect to marketing.

    It seems that innovation is often praised for innovation’s sake. Innovation is fun to watch, indeed, but it doesn’t seem like there are a lot of rewards for being first-to-market.

    A lot of Web 2.0 initiatives are starting with the solution first, before defining the need/objective/outcome.

  8. @JP: The return on “being innovative” is the same return as any other investment. The presumption, however, is that innovation is higher up the risk/return curve, and possibly creates some sort of competitive advantage (which should be reflected in the ROI, anyway, so this shouldn’t have to be mentioned).

  9. Ron,

    You probably know chat boards were around *before* the web. Companies operated these boards on CompuServe, for example. UGC can be an effective tool, when used in a way that makes sense.

    What drives me crazy, with a nod to JP, is that just because someone invents a new version of a basic technology, people think “it changes everything”. And it doesn’t, it just makes the same thing faster or easier. The basic utility doesn’t change, and it can’t be used for brand new ideas. It simply attracts a larger audience because it’s simpler or easier to use. Blogs are web sites that are easier to publish, for example.

    And this is exactly where a lot of web folks start to get into trouble in my opinion, because as soon as you start throwing around the word “audience”, then someone wants to shove advertising into it – advertising that is almost completely ineffective, because the “audience” is not even remotely interested in it.

    That’s how “social media” was born. Take the worlds lousiest interactive advertising unit – a display ad – and put it in the world’s lousiest media environment for advertising – anything “social” – and Poof! Innovation. Works every time.

    Until, of course (to circle back), someone brings accountability to this social media ad spend, and then we get to visit 2000 again, and breathlessly await the next innovation.

    Have a nice day…

  10. There are very few truly new and unique ideas that transform an entire ______________ [industry, process, etc.] Most ideas are actually combinations or evolutions of existing ideas.

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