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Marketers Need to Love Small Failures

by: Anthony Coppedge

Published on
Monday, February 5, 2018

Marketers Need to Love Small Failures

Failure. The word evokes strong emotional responses. Indeed, failure is seen as something to be avoided. Research from Stanford, the University of Colorado, and Tel Aviv University, for example, point to the value of learning from failures. Marketers need to adopt a mindset that sees failure as merely the byproduct of good testing. For us, failure is a positive check mark in lessons learned and new theories validated. We need to fail faster, and more often, to ensure our marketing teams deliver the highest value possible.

“The thrill of victory. And the agony of defeat.” This line from ABC’s Wide World of Sports opener in the 1970’s and 80’s, was visually illustrated along with a ski-jumper mid-flight and out of control in a horrendous accident at the Olympics. Those failures are the stuff of bone-breaking nightmares and not the kind of failures that marketers need worry about.

The good news is that as marketers we’re not going to break our legs while running split A/B tests on email campaigns, digital ads, or landing pages. We do, though, need to be constantly pushing up against what we think we know by experimenting so vigorously that we learn to love the small failures.

Build a Culture of Small and Fast Failures

The famous phrase “fail-fast,” means that businesses should undertake bold experiments to determine the long-term viability of a product or strategy rather than proceeding cautiously and investing years in a doomed approach. In the Agile marketing space, fail-fast means experimenting with small deliverables–often to highly segmented groups–and checking the results quickly to learn which test resulted in positive outcomes.

By creating a culture of small, minimum viable deliverables and testing quickly and often, marketing teams learn effective strategies faster and create better deliverables because every small failure represents a fact or insight uncovered.

Some marketing teams struggle to build this kind of culture because frequent tests take time and energy, often traded for the expediency of creating more deliverables. To be sure, there is a tension to be managed when it comes to testing and actually executing on what those tests reveal. The principle at work in this kind of culture-building is revealed through deconstructing old behaviors focused on getting more stuff done, and in changing the scorecard from outputs to outcomes. The value of the marketing teams efforts and the ROI of deliverables are measurable outcomes.

Failure Happens More Often Than Success

For the marketers who are cynical about a “fail small, fail fast” culture, an article published in Think with Google in December of 2017 highlighted the value of testing and failing rapidly. "Our test success rate is about 10%, but we learn something from all our tests," states Jesse Nichols, Head of Web App and App Analytics at Nest (the automated thermostat manufacturer), who knows better than most that success comes from failing more than from succeeding.

Marketers aren’t afraid of iterative, multivariate tests, yet we often stop when we get to the first thing that works. This habit does help us execute faster, but it begs the question: “What could happen if we didn’t stop at the first good idea?”

In his book “Six Thinking Hats”, Edward DeBono, a world-renowned physician, psychologist, author, and inventor, created a method for creative group brainstorming involving six colored hats. His "Six Thinking Hats" provides a means for groups to brainstorm in a detailed and cohesive way, and in doing so for a team to think together more effectively. In a nutshell, this tool helps eliminate the common failure points of brainstorming. The “hats”, metaphorically worn by group participants, aid individuals in addressing problems from a variety of angles, and focusing individuals on how they approach problem solving. In this way, a “bad idea” isn’t shot down because such an idea often leads to new thinking and a better solution. A “good idea”is realized precisely because the “bad idea” spawned divergent thinking.

Though DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats is a helpful tool for any team, the principle of learning from mistakes or bad ideas is ultimately more valuable than the simplified approach of testing merely the first good idea. Failure isn’t final, but it is crucial for sustained success.

How to Fail Better

To help your team of marketers objectively consider how to apply these principles, ask your team these questions:

“Is our marketing team judged more by what doesn’t work or by what does work?”

“How can we create more minimally viable deliverables to test the validity of our assumptions about the value of our complex, time-consuming deliverables so that our big efforts yield better results?”

“Do we need to put a better team brainstorming process in place to keep from stopping ourselves at the first good idea?”

“What threshold can we, or our leaders, accept as a good ‘failure rate’?”

Your marketing team faces the challenge of producing better results. Hands down, the best way to do that is to build a sustainable, fast process for testing theories and building the systems to iterate quickly and measure results for comparison.

The question isn’t if your marketing team needs to test more frequently, but how you and your team can create small, minimally viable deliverables faster, test quickly and often, and create better deliverables and not merely more deliverables. We’ll never get away from needing to create big, complex deliverables and manage those projects through to completion. We can, however, do a far better job at testing the components of these large projects along the way to deliver better results.

tagged with: Agile Marketing

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