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By Caroline Jackson

Embracing “I Don’t Know”

It’s hard to say “I don’t know.” But it’s detrimental to act like you do know, when you don’t know, or worse when you can’t know. We’re faced with this all the time in our business. A new client comes in with an outdated website, haphazard social media posting and some print ads floating around, and they ask us, “what will make their business twice as successful?” The answer, “I don’t know!” What I do know is that we CAN hone in on what works.

At BRINK we keep up with new and emerging trends and tools but we won’t pretend we have your fix at first look. I’m sorry if that isn’t the answer you wanted to hear, dear client. But if you hear anything else, you’re being fed bullshit.

The archetype of the marketing man is an all knowing guru with an uncanny knowledge of what works, of what sells. But just like the Mad Man-era account man that BRINK VP Josh Belhumeur so eloquently nixed, that guy needs to go out the window too. Because being an astute marketing person doesn’t mean you know everything about what will work for everyone, as soon as they walk in the door… and it’s okay! The world is full of more possible platforms for seeding your brand message every day and we can’t know right off the bat if your beefing up your forthcoming movie’s Instagram posting will increase feverish fandom around your film. Luckily, we have experience AND a process for figuring it out. We have the tools to analyze and make sense of all available metrics, and we are nimble (and open-minded) enough to adjust strategies quickly.

Assessing feedback instead of faking insight.

A recent Freakonomics podcast, “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language,” looked right at the much-feared “I don’t know.” The show opened with a study where kids were asked a series of questions including, “What weighs more red or yellow?” and somehow these kids had an answer! Not because there is one, but because despite the interviewer saying “You can say ‘I don’t know.’” these kids couldn’t resist answering, because that’s what our culture so often demands – first on multiple choice tests and later in job interviews and meetings with clients. Adults aren’t any better than those kids; the habit of spitting out an answer is long-lasting. Have you been in a business meeting where you listened as someone fumbled their way through an answer, peppering in a million buzzwords and not delivering any kind of meaningful insight? Thought so. But can we stop doing that? Hell yes.

Economist and Business Consultant Steven Levitt of Freakonomics says feedback is the way to learn, not faking it. A man after my own heart. He goes on to say we have to “fall in love with experimenting.” For me, this whole episode reaffirmed the process we put into place at BRINK when we first began developing social media strategies for clients years ago. We knew we had to stay on the forefront, aware of advances in social media. We had to determine when to employ less traditional marketing in favor of new media and what new platforms warranted our attention, but we also knew that the answers wouldn’t be inherent even when we had all the available information. We knew every well-researched, well-thought out, well-designed solution wouldn’t work. There weren’t any easy fixes then and there aren’t now. So we experiment. And we might fail. We constantly readjust. We constantly analyze. And we often succeed!

Just because you don’t know all doesn’t mean you can’t get started.

So what is our process? A client brings us a problem that we don’t know the answer to – “How can we change the perception of our brand?” or “How can we increase sales?” First, we admit it we don’t know The Answer. And then we construct an experiment.

Plan > Create > Engage > Measure… REPEAT

Does an initial audit of the clients’ social media accounts show weak content without a target audience in mind and with lackluster imagery? Do we think creating a strategy for social media will increase sales of their product? If we think the answer to these two things might be yes, we might start right there.

And so:

  • We devise a month’s worth of content, slotting out times and target audiences.
  • We create the most compelling posts we can that utilize a brand’s voice and visual style and incorporate established best practices.
  • We map influencers in their niche market.
  • We begin posting and engaging with fans and potential fans.
  • We track everything and analyze the numbers.

Did sales stay the same? Did they go up? Did they go down?

Whatever the answer is after our experiment ends determines what course of action we take next. We divorce our assumptions (even if they are founded in what has worked for others) from the data. And on and on we go with this same process, singling out variables and analyzing the data.

Yes, we love social media and have seen what it can do for brands we’ve worked with but we won’t ignore the possibility that a print ad or billboard might be a totally suitable part of their marketing budget. We just don’t chain our horse to that cart until we test it. We’re always willing to ditch something.

Going with your strengths – and knowing when to cut your losses.

I know it’s not fun to tell a client there’s a chance “this might not work!” when you begin a project. But it’s reality. All we – and any good agency – can ensure is that the work we do will be the best it can be for the task at hand, we will use all the tools at our disposal and we will not repeat mistakes.

There was an anecdote included in that Freakonomics episode that represents a shockingly commonplace disposition. Dubner recounted a chain of department stores refusing his suggestion to pull ads from local newspapers to see if they were working. He was proposing an experiment. His client had no evidence the ads worked, and a little evidence that they suggested they might not (a crappy intern had accidentally not submitted the ads for a time and sales didn’t budge)! But the marketing people behind the chain were too afraid to stop, too afraid to explain to the CEO why they would stop them for a period of time (because they should have known from the get go if the ads would be successful, right?), so afraid of what MIGHT happen to sales. And so they continued shoveling millions into a “solution” that hadn’t been proven worthy.

This is exactly the kind of situation we are trying to avoid for our clients. We will say “I don’t know,” we will experiment and we will show you the results as we go. We will make assessments based on our personal expertise in digital strategy, programming, design, social media and copywriting, and with knowledge of current trends and your brand’s identity, but above all else we will devise experiments to vet the right approach. If you – or your agency – is not doing that, you’re bound to make (or have made) some costly mistakes.

By Caroline Jackson