Commentary

Trial And Error Belongs In The Lab

I recently participated in an Integrated Marketing Communications committee meeting with some of the nation's largest and most esteemed marketers. I heard a comment from one marketer that was so concerning, I decided that for the general well-being of the industry, I'd better share! This particular marketer referenced social media as today's version of the corporate Web site experiment of 10 years ago. In her words, "Let's throw brand experiences into social media and see what sticks." This trial-and-error approach may work in the lab, but it certainly doesn't work in the marketplace.

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.

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1 comment about "Trial And Error Belongs In The Lab ".
  1. Stephen Neils from absolute brand , March 8, 2010 at 10:50 a.m.

    Ms. Franks,

    I completely agree with your premise that "testing" in a social media lab, is no short cut nor barometer for true market research. It's a load of scientific crap really. There's so many unknowns and pitfalls within the social media realm, that finding true answers to correct questions is "virtually" impossible.

    I emphasize the term virtually because most if not all of social media is virtual. We don't know who or what's on the other side of what may be perceived as meaningful dialog when we engage with others in social media.

    However there's a part of me that doesn't care! These thoughts, these perceptions, the dialog that springs from these engagements with social media audiences are ALL meaningful. It's ALL real.

    I've been doing this for 25 years so I've heard this dialog before It's not new. But it's never been so fast, and so loud. It's not because I haven't been listening, although some have certainly been convicted of that injustice, but because the audience never felt so empowered to freely speak to me.

    BAM, there's the gem; "Empowered to freely speak."

    So here's my spin. Before you embark on your next market research journey, peek your head into this new virtual medium, listen to this new voice, and you'll find the voice, the wherewithal, and the evidence to sustain or fund your next REAL market research project. IF you're listening.