The Messy Part of Marketing

messymarketingMarketing is hard. It’s hard because marketing reflects real life. And real life is hard. But here’s the thing – it’s just going to get harder. It’s messy and squishy and filled with nasty little organic things like emotions and human beings.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been filing things away as possible topics for this column. For instance, I’ve got a pretty big file of contradicting research on what works in B2B marketing. Videos work. They don’t work. Referrals are the bomb. No, it’s content. Okay, maybe it’s both. Hmmm..pretty sure it’s not Facebook though.

The integration of marketing technology was another promising avenue. Companies are struggling with data. They’re drowning in data. They have no idea what to do with all the data that’s pouring in from smart watches and smart phones and smart bracelets and smart bangles and smart suppositories and – okay, maybe not suppositories, but that’s just because no one thought of it till I just mentioned it.

Then there’s the new Google tool that predicts the path to purchase. That sounds pretty cool. Marketers love things that predict things. That would make life easier. But life isn’t easy. So marketing isn’t easy. Marketing is all about trying to decipher the mangled mess of living just long enough to shoehorn in a message that maybe, just maybe that will catch the right person at the right time. And that mangled mess is just getting messier.

Personally, the thing that attracted me to marketing was its messiness. I love organic, gritty problems with no clear-cut solutions. Scientists call these ill-defined problems. And that’s why marketing is hard. It’s an ill-defined problem. It defies programmatic solutions. You can’t write an algorithm that will spit out perfect marketing. You can attack little slivers of marketing that lend themselves to clearer solutions, which is why you have the current explosion of ad-tech tools. But the challenge is trying to bring all these solutions together into some type of cohesive package that actually helps you relate to a living, breathing human.

One of the things that has always amazed me is how blissfully ignorant most marketers are about concepts that I think should be fundamental to understanding customer behaviors: things like bounded rationality, cognitive biases, decision theory and sense-making. Mention any of these things in a conference room full of marketers and watch eyes glaze over as fingers nervously thumb through the conference program, looking for any session that has “Top Ten” or “Surefire” in it’s title.

Take Information Foraging Theory, for instance. Anytime I speak about a topic that touches on how humans find information (which is almost always), I ask my audience of marketers if they’ve ever heard of I.F.T. Generally, not one hand goes up. Sometimes I think Jakob Nielsen and I are the only two people in the world that recognize I.F.T. for what it is: “the most important concept to emerge from Human-Computer Interaction research since 1993.” (Jakob’s words). If you take the time to understand this one concept I promise it will fundamentally and forever change how you look at web design, search marketing, creative and ad placement. Web marketers should be building a shrine to Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card. Their names should be on the tips of every marketer’s tongue. But I venture to guess that most of you reading this column never heard of them until today.

None of these fundamental concepts about human behavior are easy to grasp. Like all great ideas, they are simple to state but difficult to understand. They cover a lot of territory – much of it ill defined. I’ve spent most of my professional life trying to spread awareness of things like Information Foraging Theory. Can I always predict human behavior? Not by a long shot. But I hope that by taking the time to learn more about the classic theories of how we humans tick, I have also learned a little more about marketing. It’s not easy. It’s not perfect. It’s a lot like being human. But I’ve always believed that to be an effective marketer, you first need to understand humans.

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