If there’s one word that describes today’s digital world it’s “unpredictable.” Why then do we approach marketing to digital audiences as if their behavior was fixed? We plan, plan, plan, and plan some more and eventually launch a campaign only to find that the reason for which the campaign was originally conceived has passed. Oops.
Today’s marketing is rooted in old-world behaviors
The problem starts with how most organizations run marketing—project based.
According to Wikipedia, project management became recognized in the 1950s arising from the management discipline within the engineering model. Instead of tracking project completion using Gantt charts and other methods, project management reached a whole new level as mathematical models like CPM and PERT were adopted by many of the world’s most successful companies.
The problem isn’t with project management in general. The common phases—initiation, planning and design, execution, monitoring and controlling, and closure—are well suited to engineering projects that require a tight discipline. Unfortunately, project management quickly permeated the entire organization, governing everything from HR to marketing. Whenever something needs to be “implemented” a “project” is created and everyone dons his or her engineering mindset to tackle the steps in a methodical fashion.
Why marketing ultimately fails when project managed
The reason that engineering projects succeed when project-managed correctly is exactly the same reason that marketing campaigns ultimately fail when they are managed like a project—variability.
In a typical engineering project, there can be a lot of variables. But they are fixed. For example, software coding is carried out in a development environment that is identical to the production environment. This means that there is a very defined set of parameters. When the software does not behave as it has been expected to (i.e., an output variance), it can be traced back to one of the variable elements within the environment. The point I’m trying to make here is that the environment doesn’t change (unless someone deliberately changes it).
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for real life, the purview of marketing campaigns. The problem with running a marketing campaign according to a project is that measurement can only take into account a “fixed” view of the world (upon which the campaign is based). Only the world is not like a software development environment. It changes. It’s fluid.
Have we ever really asked why most marketing campaign effectiveness is below 10%, sometimes stretching into the teens? Sure, there are exceptions (i.e., virality) but for the most part, the average person rejects marketing campaigns. Is it because there’s a general anathema to marketing as a whole? Or is it because the environment no longer reflects the original intention(s) of the campaign?
Keeping marketing fluid
I don’t take credit for the word “fluid.” Josh Mildenhall over at Coca Cola used the term to describe their content strategy and made a compelling case in two well-known videos (search for them on YouTube). But Mildenhall and his group referred only to keeping content fluid. I think it’s more than that. The term “fluid” should define the very way that organizations approach marketing.
So what does fluid mean? Simply put, it means running marketing campaigns without the need for planning. First, planning is based on assumption. Being assumptive about the market creates a fixed-variable environment. As I pointed out, that’s bad and probably the reason that most marketing campaigns do very poorly. Fluid marketing means making no assumptions. It requires that the organization define targets very loosely. It requires that the organization measure campaign effectiveness constantly and make adjustments on the fly. So campaigns don’t “start” and “stop” (which is a very project-management view of the world). In a fluid marketing organization, campaigns are always living. It’s just a matter of how much energy is directed into them that matters.
This is not your grandparent’s buyers journey…
The best illustration of the changing consumer landscape is in the evolution of the buyer’s journey.
A typical buyer’s journey is a linear process:
- Identify the need
- Search for options
- Compare vendors
- Make a selection
But that’s not how consumers shop anymore. Decisions today are crowd-sourced (through social media, review sites, Google) and the journey moves back and forth between stages in a willy-nilly fashion.
Because of global logistics, it is actually easier to buy a product, test, and return than it is sometimes to compare different options!
The result is a world-view that is anything but predictable.
It’s still about measurement (i.e., big data)
The big thing about fluid marketing is that measurement is an on-going activity. In a typical project-managed campaign, measurement is done after-the-fact to provide an indicator of “success” or “failure.” After that identification, a new campaign may be initiated taking into account “things learned” from either the success or failure of its predecessor. Woe is to that—one campaign runs on a fixed-variable environment, and the second is based on the same environment. There is no consideration for change.
But in a marketing organization that is fluid, measurement is carried out on a constant basis. The campaign only begins. It is tweaked and tuned daily, perhaps even hourly, to reflect not only the outcome of the campaign (if it is meeting objectives or not) but also other data sources—social media, world news, even the weather. Fluid marketing eats big data for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This method for managing marketing activities recognizes that the world is a dynamic and shifting place with an infinite number of data sources upon which to base targeting. Just ask Oreo.
A cookie gets a fluid-marketing slam dunk
The best example of fluid marketing in action is the Oreo “You can still dunk in the dark” tweet from the 2013 Superbowl®. What Nabisco did was pay attention to the world as it was happening (rather than a snapshot of a fixed-variable environment). As such, they were able to launch a micro-campaign targeted at viewers of the Superbowl®.
From Macro-marketing to Micro-marketing
What fluid marketing creates, more than anything is the opportunity to “micro-market.”
In traditional marketing, because we look at the world in snapshots, organizations target broad swaths of people. Ultimately, that might be to justify marketing budgets (i.e., a bigger TAM represents a bigger opportunity). Regardless, this approach contributes to the failure of modern project-management based marketing because it fails to take into account the dynamic, shifting nature of today’s world.
In a marketing organization that manages their activities fluidly, they can spin-up “targets” on a constant basis. Today it’s 817. Tomorrow, 446. The next day, 10,182. When Oreo blasted out that Superbowl® Tweet, they were targeting those people watching the game. The total-addressable market was actually pretty small (what percentage of people watching the game were active Twitter users and following Oreo) but highly focused…and probably resulted in a sales spike after the game.
The cost of Oreo’s successful micro-marketing campaign? Near zero.
Time to get a new mindset
Marketing is due for an evolutionary change right now. The old project-management based approach just doesn’t cut it when the world is shifting so fast thanks to digital technologies. Consumers are spending more and more of their time “connected” and, as such, are being sucked into a life that moves and changes rapidly. In order for marketing to capitalize on this, it needs to remain fluid, ditch assumptions, and pay attention. Marketing needs to redefine what a “campaign” means. This will require a new way to measure as it moves from macro to micro, as organizations run hundreds of simultaneous campaigns targeted at specific target segments rather than a few large campaigns at a megalithic market.
A note on “agile” marketing
Just a little note on “agile” marketing which is becoming popular in certain organizations as a way to be more nimble. The problem is that “agile” is a software methodology. It’s still a way to project-manage marketing activities and, as such, relies on assumptions and a fixed-variable view of the world. That just doesn’t work in today’s shifting environment. Remember, you are targeting people, not variables.
 Thibeault, Jason and Kirby Wadsworth. Recommend This! Delivering Digital Experiences that People Want to Share. Wiley. 2014.