Saturday, November 6, 2010

Marketing is the Art of Managing Failure

"The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one." - Elbert Hubbard
Are there any roles out there where failure rates as as high as what we marketers expect?

But first, what do I mean by failure?

We send out an e-blast to 1,000 people for an upcoming, free webinar. 320 open the e-blast. 50 click-through. And 6 register for our upcoming event. (Marketers right now are thinking, "If only...")

Here's the math:

32% open rate. 5% CTR. 6 registrants. A decent conversion rate for a single e-blast.

But let's turn the math around:

680 people (68%) never got* the invite. 950 people (95%) either didn't got it or didn't care. 994 people (99.4%) failed to register. If this were a test, you would get an A+ ... for failing.
I often explain that marketers are in the business of managing failure.
Only once in my career can I point back to a marketing effort with a 100% success rate, where every single recipient (105 of them) took the desired action (agreed to a meeting.) I can also point back to a campaign where we estimated a 10% acceptance rate and hit 30+%, which put the customer service folks in an untenable position for delivering on our promises**.

Unfortunately, I can also point back to efforts with 0% success rate. Yes, goose eggs. Where we wondered if the marketing actually dropped. (It's a sickening feeling, even for someone who knows that success is measured in partial percentages.)

OK, so why am I writing this?

Because marketers are often sitting across the desks from professionals who cannot fail. People for whom imperfection is career-threatening. 88% of your shipments arrived on time. 92% of your products worked as promised. 96% of your financial reports were accurate. 99.5% of the food your restaurant served today was safe for consumption. (Bear with this example...I'm coming off a bout of food poisoning courtesy of a mid-scale restaurant.) None of these are acceptable rates.

So when you, the profession marketer, talk excitedly about a "whopping" 32% open rate, these can't-fail professionals wonder if they could do your job with both hands tied behind their backs, pecking at the keyboard with their noses. When you talk about the 15 people who attended the webinar, they wonder just how far away from an actual monetary transaction this might be, only wishing that they also got credit for jobs partially done.
Marketers are more like kids at a party trying to get candy from a pinata. Sometimes our first swing hits the empty air.
We need the people sitting across from us to understand that we are in the business of managing failure. Our success is measured in small percentages. And, often, the target moves, so our next attempt has even less "success." But we recalibrate and take another shot. Then we measure the results and, if they are higher, we move in that direction some more.
When we clip the pinata, we readjust our aim, hoping this one will be more on target.
So, I repeat, marketers are in the business of managing failure. We do not expect anything close to a 100% success rate. And if you, our CEOs and Managing Partners and Presidents, expect we will succeed every time, then you are judging us by the wrong criteria.

Our job is not to get it perfect the first time, though that would be nice. Our job is to take calculated risks that, if we do our jobs well, can eventually create predictive results that provide a valuable and sustainable return on investment.
And when we hit the pinata just right ... everyone gets candy!

*Yes, I know that "got" is the wrong word. They "got" the e-mail, it just bounced off their cranium like a gnat off a motorcycle helmet. Not a technical bounce, but a functional one.
**The resulting sales for the product, however, made up for any short term grief.

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