True, in many ways, the Internet did behave like a giant laboratory 10 years ago. Both marketers and consumers were on a relatively level playing field. They were discovering the richness and the utility of the medium as it unfolded before their eyes. There were no rules. The experiences were collectively and often collaboratively shaped by the content innovators, the content aggregators and the early adopters.
Social media today is a far cry from the Internet lab of 10 years ago. Rather, it is a well-established ecosystem of personal networks that have been clearly defined by its users. The transformation from unknown medium to mass medium happened practically overnight. Mainly, the marketers were left on the sidelines. If marketers attempt to experiment, their naiveté will be quickly exposed to the very consumers they wish to court in this space.
Marketers are caught in a generation gap: the medium isn't unknown to its users; rather, it's an unknown to the marketer who may be several media generations removed from the user. As social media penetration rapidly increases among the generational cohort of CMOs, they will quickly see the risks associated with the "throw it against the wall and see what sticks" approach.
Does this mean that marketers should no longer experiment? Not at all! Risk and experimentation are the critical fuel for innovation. But, there's an important lesson: be mindful of what you are calling a media laboratory. A media channel that boasts nearly 350 million users worldwide is not a great lab.
Unfortunately, many marketers have trimmed their testing budgets during challenging economic times. Now more than ever, marketers should invest in "what's possible." But they must do so in a true lab setting: a controlled environment where you can isolate key variables and learn from your behaviors without imposing possible negative effects on the brand.
Speaking of behavior, the biggest risk associated with trial and error in the marketplace is the possible negative effect on brand behavior. Brands must act with consistency and integrity in any media channel. Consumers don't see random behaviors and disjointed actions as risk and experimentation. Rather, they see such behaviors as the sign of a brand that has lost its way.
So, to the marketer who prompted the conversation, may I suggest that she rethink the in-market, "trial and error" approach? Rather, marketers should do anything and everything possible to restore their testing budgets. Learn in a true lab.