Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Panning for Gold

photo of a creek with a gold panners pan in the foreground with dirt and flecks of gold in itIn 1848, James Marshall discovered gold nuggets in the Sacramento Valley. As news of the discovery quickly spread, the influx of prospectors and dreamers reshaped the American West, By the end of 1849, the non-native population of California grew from less than 1,000 to more than 100,000.

More than $2 billion worth of precious metals were extracted from the region during the California Gold Rush, yet very few people made any money off the gold itself. Clever entrepreneurs made fortunes selling pick axes, pans, and shovels, as well as blue jeans, secure banks, transportation, and mail delivery.

Get-rich-quick schemes didn’t die on the American frontier, they have only grown more pervasive across the country in the decades that followed.

All that glitters
Marketing folks seem especially prone to chasing the latest trend – most of them driven by the promise that “there’s gold in them thar hills!”

25 years ago there was a rush to build websites for every type of company and organization. Designers asked clients, “What do you want your website to do?”

“I don’t know, but everyone else is building one,” they answered.

While the internet is not a passing fad, untold resources were spent as much to keep up with the Joneses as to meet any business objectives. Was that money well spent?

Same old song, different tune
Remember when digital advertising was going to rule the world? Ultra-targeted audiences. The ability to track results. But as online advertising continues to grow, so do questions. The biggest question involves click fraud. How effective can a campaign be if a client is paying for ads that are never seen?

The next big thing was going to be content marketing. More content exists than ever before, which makes it ever less likely that someone will find your needle in their haystack. “What I really want right now is another piece of content from my favorite brand,” said no consumer ever.

No one cares about your hashtag. People are far more likely to be interested in following the exploits of their favorite celebrities. What do consumers value? It sure as hell isn’t a contrived marketing slogan trying to pass itself off as a “conversation.”

Question everything
We all have biases and make assumptions. As Richard Stacy, a social media consultant wrote:

If you are facing a new problem and you don’t know what to do about it, you will do one of three things: you will either do what everyone else is doing, what some expert tells you to do, or whatever looks like the easiest and cheapest thing to do. Usually these all work out to be the same thing.

The antidote to both the path of expediency and the gold rush mentality is to pause and reflect. Asking the right questions is the best way to expose bad ideas. Questioning a good idea strengthens it.

Necessary assumptions
Scientists use a technique called Occam’s Razor as they develop new theories. It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

A necessary assumption is something that is required for an argument to be true. If the assumption is false, then the argument cannot be valid. It stands to reason that the more assumptions one must make, the less likely a theory will survive increased scrutiny.

In the book, How to Kill a Unicorn, author Mark Payne suggests a powerful question to ask when evaluating which ideas have potential and which are simply distractions.

What must be true for that to work?

Reverse brainstorming
After numerous new ideas or solutions are suggested, the best way to focus efforts on the best ones is to conduct a sort of “premortem” by imagining all the ways that your decision could end up in disaster. Looking at it another way:

What must be true for that to work?

Let’s take a real-world example – QR codes. Those little black-and-white boxes were ubiquitous for a while, and then, almost as quickly, seemed to disappear. Were they an idea worth pursuing?

The theory goes something like this: There are hundreds of millions of people with smartphones. Marketing people want to reach them. A QR code provides a quick way for your audience to access information about a product or service. Let’s use QR codes!

What must be true for that to work?

  • Your audience must know what a QR code is.
  • It must be simple and convenient to use.
  • Using it must provide something of value that isn’t easily attainable by other methods.
  • Your audience must want to receive your message.
  • Your audience must know others who have happily and successfully used QR codes.
  • It must work flawlessly, every time.

Did you notice a few unlikely assumptions there?

Gaining foresight
There is often wisdom in being late to the party – or even declining the invitation. Sure, some decisions end up being bad ones in retrospect. But many more can be avoided by being just a little more rigorous in questioning what everyone else is doing. Just ask your mom.

By considering diverse perspectives and summoning a little more empathy for your audience in the decision-making process, you can get a clearer peak into the future.

Just as importantly, this newfound vision will free up time that was spent panning for gold to use on more productive endeavors.

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Favorite Links: June 2012

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

How Great Leaders Inspire Action
Simon Sinek via TED.com

Why Smart People Are Stupid
Jonah Lehrer for The New Yorker

Designing for the Obvious, the Boring, the “Of Course”
Gerry McGovern

And an extra bonus link for our patient fans in Madison, Wisconsin:

Why Successful Branding Still Happens Offline
The Wall Street Journal

Measure Twice

by Dan Woychick

As more marketing happens on laptops, tablets, and smartphones, the demand for and trust in metrics continues to grow. If something can be measured, it will be, as return on investment (ROI) weighs on the minds of executives everywhere.

Analyze the following proposition. This product deprives you of sleep, makes unpleasant noises at inappropriate moments, is temperamental, requires constant attention, and costs a fortune. Babies. Who in their right mind would sign up for this? What’s the return on that investment?

We like to think we’re rational creatures, and that any situation can be measured, analyzed, and then systematically improved. And while many business metrics can be useful – even vital – they take the place of instinct, experience, and other available means of perception at our peril.

Blind spots
The truth is a lot harder to identify than it would appear at first glance. Individuals, each with their own beliefs and biases, can be relied on only to reveal one version of “reality.” One man’s trash is another’s treasure.

I have fond memories of watching Hogan’s Heroes as a boy and planning “escapes” from the basement with my brothers. I think the show is funny and still apply favorite lines to everyday situations. My wife thinks it’s one of the dumbest TV shows of all time.

In a million different ways we are all “reality challenged” and that’s a good thing – vive la différence! But we can also become blinded by our biases, form premature conclusions, and miss alternative points of view, as in this Awareness Test:

 

Cooking the books
People tend to seek out and believe numbers that support an existing assumption or preferred course of action. In other words, we see what we want to see. Marketers can shape or choose “facts” that feed this tendency.

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. – Mark Twain

Television commercials are rife with examples. Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum. The Ford F-150 offers best-in-class fuel economy. More people find love on Match.com than any other dating site.

The existing bias toward plausibly objective data is widespread and tempting for many organizations. Earlier this year, Claremont McKenna, an exclusive California college, admitted to inflating freshman SAT scores for six years to improve its place in the U.S. News & World Report’s widely-read college rankings.

Blind spots can be dangerous as well. During the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, an independent weapons inspector found no stockpiles of WMD in the country. Since these findings didn’t support its strategic goals, the U.S. government simply used other measures to justify military action.

Buyer beware
The collected wisdom of the general public is subjective and often flawed. This creates opportunities for data wonks to dazzle us with metrics that may or may not illuminate effective decisions.

Many social media consultants will happily rattle off statistics that have the imprimatur of legitimate insight: “We measure influence and engagement and have the pie charts to prove it. ROI? Have we got numbers for you!

We know social media is important. That’s what everybody says, and everyone we know belongs to several social networks. Statistics may simply back up our existing beliefs. But, honestly, are you seeking out opportunities to engage in dialogue or conversation with a company, an institution or a brand? I’m not. Do these numbers reflect actual behavior that supports business objectives, or is it wishful thinking?

In preparation for the National Football League draft, teams put college players through a battery of tests. How many times can you bench press 225 pounds? How far can you jump from a standing start? How fast can you run 40 yards? While all those things can be quantified, in isolation – or even cumulatively – they do not reveal whether the athlete can actually play the game.

A measured response
Some things can and should be measured, but the quest for ROI is often more about minimizing risk than maximizing revenue. We must remain aware of our own biases and blind spots if we hope to transcend the data.

Gaining meaningful insights through research most often requires a balance of art and science – subjective and objective measures – because even though bean counters can tell you how many beans are in a jar, they can’t tell you how good they taste.

Related content:
Are Metrics Blinding Our Perception?
Do You Know Your Blind Spots?