When the latest marketing answers fail to produce the results you expect, maybe it's time to start asking different questions.
You don't need me to tell you that we're in a crisis of confidence: Consumers don't believe or act on the information we give them in the ways we'd hope, so we're losing faith in the strategies and tools we use to communicate with them. We're asked questions about sales, and we reply with answers about "engagement" and conversational "buzz."
Budgets are down, expectations are up, and the proliferation of new solutions for "engaging" with consumers in conversations seems inversely proportional to results that our employers and clients can value. We believe that somehow, sometime, all those efforts will coalesce—the dots will connect—and yield stunning successes, just like those celebrated in case histories and magazine articles.
I have news for you: We're chasing black swans. And if we keep doing it, we're doomed.
What's a Black Swan?
In his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Random House, 2007), financial trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb elaborates on the conundrum of swan coloring: Although your experience may be that you've only ever seen white swans, that doesn't preclude the appearance of a black one. Once you've seen that black swan, you can work backwards to come up with an explanation for it...but you can't rely on the same variables producing another one in the same way or place, or at the same time again. You may not see another black swan for years, if ever.
So missing the lessons of history doesn't mean you're going to repeat its mistakes, per se; you couldn't replicate them if you tried. The key variables that determine the outcomes of events, or the events themselves, are usually unpredicted:
- A tidbit of information that nobody knew was relevant
- An insight that was unique or occurred in a unique moment in time
- A chain of events that produced a novel outcome
Scientific breakthroughs, terrorist attacks, and every surprising news story make perfect sense when studied retrospectively. But rarely, if ever, can they be forecast. More important, they can't be replicated, at least not with any certainty of the outcome.
How is it that the reliability of our marketing plans often proves illusive, and our estimates of the likelihood of success reveal, in hindsight, to have been little better than misplaced hope? It's because we are obsessed with studying, copying, and praying for black swans.
Relying on the Unreliable
Conventional wisdom suggests that experiences can be replicated. Great successes are achievable, but only if we understand the components involved. Missteps or failures, therefore, represent an imperfect understanding of those events. A strategic point missed or an executional detail botched—study and map such events, and plan your future actions accordingly.
Black swan theory suggests that this planning approach is doomed, because you can never know exactly which element made the difference or how it made the difference. You certainly can't rely on duplicating the circumstances again. Tomorrow is going to be different from yesterday, by definition.
For instance, in my book, Branding Only Works on Cattle, I explore the story of Buckminster Fuller, who died at a ripe old age after writing dozens of patents; winning accolades from world leaders; and making an impact on social theory, industrial design, and a host of other subjects. Yet what first brought him notoriety was a department-store PR guy who wanted someone who seemed "futuristic" to help market a furniture sale. Fuller's fame was a black-swan event.
So skip how tough or unforgiving today's consumer might be. Don't blame our difficulties on the marketplace. We're doing ourselves a great disservice by inventing branding and marketing plans that can never come to fruition. We talk about strategies, but our estimates of the likelihood of success are just shy of wild guesses.
Moving to Reasonable Expectations
If the real determinants of successes and failures are unpredictable, then marketers should redefine the terms and metrics used to quantify them.
Recognizing that the best, most stellar brand-marketing success stories are the unreliable exceptions to the norm, we could go about identifying and quantifying more reasonable expectations. We should stop trying to produce black swans and instead focus on building marketing strategies and tactics based on the white ones.
Let's call it "white-swan marketing." What might it mean for us?
First, we'd choose to forgo aspirational goals—and relying on variables outside our control—and instead define guaranteed deliverables. I know it's probably anathema to your training, but there's some percentage of sales results that you can all but guarantee, isn't there? Maybe it's because you'll rely on current customers or pent-up demand among a specific consumer segment. Perhaps there's a transactional equation that has always worked for you through such a variety of different circumstances that it's effectively a truism. Your budget and plan should be based on delivering those results.
Imagine using such a forecast as the basis for your goal setting: You could cast your campaign objectives using declarative verbs, not the subjunctive, and your promise to management (or to your client) wouldn't be a "what if" hope or intention but a tangibly real "and then" expectation. It might not be as sexy or large or quick as anybody would hope, but it would go far toward helping you define ROI on which everyone could depend.
Second, reserve a small portion of your strategy and budget for gambling, for Hail Mary passes—actions that almost defy what the past might tell you to expect. In other words, designate your black swan goals (usually involving what were formerly your overall goals).
Black swan goals are likely to be counterintuitive, as well as dependent on chance occurrences. So it could be great if some bloggers supported your product and did so-and-so. If consumers at XYZ stores did something, here's what it could prompt. Whatever the breakthrough, identify it as just that—a potential black swan—and state it in your plans with the appropriate caveats.
In this way, you remove most of the uncontrollable downside variability inherent in your plans while maintaining exposure to the potential upside. You won't find yourself depending on a black swan to emerge, but you'll be ready if one does.
Finally, whether you need to manage your white-swan delivery or be ready to respond to a black-swan event, you need to know what's going on.
A white-swan marketing approach would give you a new set of criteria and metrics for your planning. No longer would you be content with measuring "awareness" or "clicks/visits." Rather, you'd instead look for proof points of movement—requests, votes, inputs, forwards, inquiries, complaints—toward your sales goals. Conversations would matter only insomuch that they yielded outcomes to other steps. You wouldn't plan to "introduce" or "educate" people as much as inspire and motivate them to do things.
Your branding success would be measured by the behaviors of your target audiences, not simply by how often (or how creatively) you subjected them to your brilliant creative thinking.
There's no rulebook for a white-swan approach to your marketing plans—no established orthodoxy, or thriving community of inspired vendors or theorists haggling to sell you the methodologies, philosophies, and software platforms needed to accomplish it.
That's good news: It means there's nothing stopping you from applying the principles on your own, to your tactics and/or strategies, starting the moment you finish reading this article. Here are five steps you can take immediately:
1. Rewrite your cases
- Take the latest, most "important" case you have been handed (or found) and upon which you want to model a project.
- Revise it based on two criteria: the activities that the business initiated that prompted a consumer response of some sort (a behavioral response, like a trial, vote, register, whatever, but not awareness), and things that occurred—most connections between activities—that were not under the control of the business (e.g., chance, opportunity).
- Assign a third, follow-on category (either a sorting or addition activity) that specifies the outcome(s) of the case, measured also in behaviors, not awareness.
You'll immediately have a different perspective on the "what" of the case, and how it was delivered. You may see that you don't want to duplicate it, necessarily, or that the deliverables are altogether valuable to you.
2. Assess the likelihood of success
- Look at your activities in each category, and estimate whether they'd happen again.
- Consider what had to occur—what were the levers, influences, causal connections—for things to happen.
- Take a risk and specify a percentage, effectively finishing the sentence "I think there's a ___% chance that this element would happen the way we want it."
- Assign a lower percentage for activities beyond your direct control (like people "finding" your site or a key blogger giving you the review you want, and readers taking some subsequent action, etc.).
- Be ruthlessly conservative; remember, you want to understand what you can all but guarantee, not just what you hope for.
This step will help you better analyze the strengths and vulnerabilities of your current plans.
3. Revise "shoulds" to "wills"
This step is a tough one.
- Look at a current project, based on your understanding of your model case, and apply your success analysis to it (Step 2).
- Determine what it would take to make each deliverable all but unavoidable. In other words, edit "out" all the hope and blind faith you possess in things just "happening," and brainstorm (however strategically or creatively as necessary) how you'd go about making sure something happens. Obviously, if an activity remains subjunctively impaired, it should have a low success percentage, right?
- Ensure that the things that you can all but guarantee will happen are the core, most important, and highest-reward elements of your plan. If they're not, you probably have a strategic issue to resolve. At a minimum, you might discover several weaknesses or outright holes in your plans, and find ways to remedy them before you go to market.
4. Reallocate dollars to certainties
- Reassess your allocation of funds, and see whether you should (and can) put more money behind the things that you can all but guarantee will happen—and thus are likely the most important things to happen—and take money away from the gambles.
- Be ruthless, and challenge the program elements that you might otherwise love, and see them as building blocks: You need to affirm the basics, and the foundation, before you can even consider taking risks. In doing so, it's more than likely that you will see your budget skew toward pretty standard, basic activities that aren't all that sexy but will help ensure that your program succeeds.
- Think also about budgetary support outside your direct control, and use this exercise as a tool to talk to other departments (most notably Technology and Customer Service). Are they set up and ready to support your priorities? Now you have a basis to show them what they are and why they matter.
5. Pick your black-swan bets
Now comes the fun part!
- Specify some really wild gambles after you've recast your model and current project in terms of a white-swan strategy. Are those gambles some of the elements that had such a low likelihood of success that you wrote them out of your plans earlier on? Perhaps there are other pie-in-the-sky components that would be just amazing if they happened, even if they're about as predictable as a meteor strike.
And that's the point of a black swan, really; you really don't know when, where, or how it will occur. You can make an educated guess, but that fantasy shouldn't be at the heart of your plans. It should be a welcome, marvelous surprise.
- Remind yourself that if and when one of those black swan events occurs—the blog post prompts a zillion replies or Oprah agrees to hand out your products to her studio audience—don't incorporate it into your case model for next time. About the only thing more unlikely than a black-swan event is the recurrence of one!
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Again, the white-swan approach to your planning can be applied in bits and pieces or as an overall approach (as outlined above). The ultimate point is that you should consider getting into the business of guaranteeing results, not just throwing stuff into the cosmos and hoping that good things will happen. That's just a bad way to get work done, and it doesn't do your career any favors.
Stop chasing black swans, and start delivering white ones.