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Where Good Digital Marketing Stories Start

At the heart of all things compelling is an unresolved conflict. Here are some unresolved conflicts of digital marketing.

You know what’s the coolest shit ever?

The coolest shit ever is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Once I stumbled over that nut in high school, I thought:

This world is a vastly weirder place than I ever gave it credit for.

At that point, if I had decided to act on the insight, I would have moved to Ushuaia and started cultivating and training my army of killer penguin ninjas. I didn’t, which is kind of a pity. Because then somebody else got to do that.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle says that the act of measuring something, changes it. And not in the “I had to chop off the fish’s head to get it to fit on the scales” kind of way. It’s the “you’re part of the system” kind of way. You want to know my position? Fine, but then you’ll affect my velocity. Want to know my velocity? OK, but just looking will change my position.

It’s the end of any pretense of objectivity.

That’s unresolved conflict. A problem you can’t explain away.

You know what else is unresolved conflict? The curse of the Chicago Cubs. Beginner’s luck. Apple’s peculiar P:E ratio. Fading beauty. Amazon’s impact on small towns. The Catholic Church (just…in general).

Unresolved conflicts are at the center of any story. Or any good one. (Which is why businesses are generally so bad at storytelling – they loathe conflict, and particularly unresolved conflict. But that’s for another day.)

There are heaps of unresolved conflicts in digital marketing. Chances are, if you work in digital marketing, you will recognize that each of these topics triggers competing thoughts in your head (and you’ll know one person who represents each pole).

Preference Plasticity – I can love anything I’m supposed to love

This is intrinsic to marketing, but particularly so to digital marketing (and even more content marketing). We’ve all understood the mantra “be authentic”, particularly when it concerns blogging and social media. So millions of marketers have to feign authenticity daily, to varying degrees. You see this most blatantly when someone starts in a new job. The guy who gets hired in a marketing role for Microsoft suddenly “gets” Surface. This is unresolved because the preference is natural and organic. It’s your employer. They’re paying you. Plus you’re spending all your time in that particular world. Of course you’ll adopt their world-view. But is it right and good?

 

Free’s a thing – The impact of free on real costs

Digital marketing’s free. Seriously, you can go far with zero topline costs. Start a blog. Social media profiles. Attach some forum freeware. Bang, you got community. User-generated content. Unpaid advocates. And Google Analytics to measure it all. Even the most pie-eyed Gen Y’er will see a lot of work between the lines. But free is, after all, free. Countless enterprises shell out big bucks for stuff when they should get it free. And your own blog posts may be better than the stuff you hired a superstar blogger to write for you. Free’s an unresolved conflict.

 

More busy is more right

I’m not the first to attack this idea. I wish I was the last (but I won’t be). Nothing gilds the conversation of digital hipsters more naturally than “things are crazy busy right now” followed by a Christmas card-like list of petty accomplishments. It’s enough to make me want to answer “are you busy?” with “nah, not doing fuck-all – just lazy, I guess.” But it wouldn’t be true. Busy people are busy because they’re determined to love what they’re doing, enough to be super goddamn busy. And therefore, they’re often probably in the right (if not in principle, in sentiment). This is unresolved because the correlation between busy and right is one we’d like to believe, but not backed up by anything more than hope and faith.

 

More leads is more right

Nothing soothes the rusty corridors of the marketer’s heart more than lead numbers. It fulfills the marketer’s core lifelong purpose – to be loved (if enough to put a real email address into a form). Every marketer knows the drill:

Person A: “How did your last awareness campaign go?”

You (marketer): “Killed it. We had 5,000+ leads inside a week.”

Person A: “Were they worthwhile leads, though?”

How you answer that second question is an existential litmus test. 90% of marketers will respond “lots of junk but some real good leads in there” (or “total pile of crap” if it’s someone else’s campaign). Salespeople could tell you a thing or two about lead quality. But, in fact, even junk leads aren’t junk leads. That student at the local community college might very well be a customer next year, or a new hire. And campaigns that disappear, disappear. There’s no unambiguous measure of lead volume and quality. Just countless versions of the truth. Spin.

 

Digital marketing is virtuous

Nothing’s greater received wisdom in digital marketing than “traditional marketing is more wasteful than digital marketing”. I think we associate all of the painful bullshit of marketing as we knew it with avoidable inefficiencies. Print advertising was like throwing money in the fire. Exhibition booths are like dioramas for alcoholic salesmen. We want to believe that we’re aspiring to something better. Digital’s pure. What doesn’t create value, gets discarded. That’s why we’ve redesigned our website three times in four years. Launched and neglected dozens of platforms and channels. Thrown good money after bad on banner ads. There’s probably a step change in virtuosity from traditional to digital marketing, but the latter’s still far from efficient or virtuous. Even when it’s done really damn well, it’s an unresolved conflict. Virtue escapes us.

 

Data-driven marketing is objective

My Heisenberg uncertainty metaphor gets concrete here. If you tell your content creators that you’re measuring and optimizing around pageviews, they’ll make content for pageviews. Tell them you’re optimizing around full moons, they’ll make content for full moons. There are heuristics within heuristics going on here, but your decisions regarding what data to collect, how to interpret it, how to present it and what to do about it are all informed by subjective rationale. But, some data’s better than no data, right? As it turns out, not always. It makes us feel better though. There’s an unresolved conflict hidden in the data, and its application.

 

Those glued to twitter and facebook are closer to the pulse

You can learn a lot staring at trending hashtags. Either directly, if the content applies directly to your field. Or indirectly, just by observing how news streams function, how they change and how you can change them. We’re all meta-media students now. You can also waste a hell of a lot of time watching twitter. And confuse signal for noise. The value of following twitter and facebook closely is, for the digital marketer, unresolved.

 

You should develop ignorant of the rising tide

Two years ago, we were all worried about how to deal with mobile. “Should we invest in a standalone mobile site, or an app?” Today the work of thousands of developers have obviated the question. Thanks to the rising tide of sophistication of platforms (and the army of faceless developers behind them), you can now be mobile-ready at, basically, zero cost and having learned…nothing. On the other hand, those outfits that did the hard work learned a lot from their effort; if nothing else, they learned things you can never get out of a box, like best practice under the skin and platform-specific workflows. Should you base your strategy on a rising tide of platform capability, or not? No clear answer to that one.

 

Seniority, salary and capabilities are disjointed

This is probably the most ticklish unresolved conflict. But there are certainly thousands of senior marketers (very senior marketers) who bring far less value to their organizations than their far younger, less handsomely paid but more dynamic marketing colleagues. Digital’s upended the value/seniority/capability equation. On the other hand, some highly capable digital marketers know very little about…marketing, and what makes for great marketing. Expertise and experience signals are not what they used to be. This issue is one mined with strong opinions – there’s no obvious path through the minefield.

 

Just do something (because you can, you should)

Large organizations all over the world are neglecting quick wins like a giant with a big “kick me” sign on its rear. They simply lack the pluck, initiative and agility to do it, and move on to other stuff. Digital marketing’s limitations are often self-induced. Websites don’t go months over schedule because the technical team’s reinventing HTML; they go over schedule because of committees. At the same time, digital marketing’s great at self-inflicted wounds. Give a digital marketer not quite enough rope to hang himself and he’ll find enough rope open-source to finish the job. Digital marketing’s got an issue with quick wins. We either love them not enough, or a little too much.

 

There’s one right answer out there

My favorite innovation anecdote of all time is the urban myth about the American and Russian engineers tasked with creating a pen that works in space. It’s utter bullshit, of course, but – like all great bullshit – we know it’s true on another level. To every problem, there are dozens of solutions. There may be one right answer, available and obvious to everyone. Or just bad, bad solutions. Usually, however, it’s not clear which WordPress plug-in or little piece of script will be best. Make no mistake: There is a right answer. But, it’s unclear whether it will take one hour or one eternity to discover it. When do you quit looking and just choose? No one can tell you that; it’s a question of persuasion.

 

Digital marketers should know how to code

Marketers who can write code are hot stuff. More importantly, they think they are hot stuff. Nothing warms their little tarted-up hearts more than when a developer blurts out “oh, you know javascript?” Code is a language, and knowing languages is powerful stuff. But, let’s be honest, we’re in the tenth century and trading in foreign ports and knowing pidgin’s good enough. Arguably, developers prefer marketers who can’t code, but who give clear instructions about what they want (and not how to do it). A marketer who knows how to code, though, knows what they can ask. This one can go either way.

 

Culture is not a thing

When some designers describe great UX, they act as if they were referring to the very fabric of the universe. As if God himself wanted that button to be round, and not oval. There may be a right way to do things, but it’s only right, right now. And it’s only right for the kind of user you think you’re designing for. However, there are some pretty universal precepts at work in digital marketing. People like pretty pictures. Saying it in fewer words is good. Blasting people with messages is stupid. For every dead obvious “timeless” truth, there’s someone flouting it successfully (and usually explicit about their disregard for what’s right and good). Culture, counterculture, non-culture – they blend seamlessly in digital culture.

 

You can love digital

I frequently come across bio’s that say “I love digital.” Or “I love the web.” And I have to stop and think “what does that really mean?” I mean, why? What does it mean about you? Do I have to use your keyboard after you’ve touched it? Do you not love analog? As in, real life? But we all kind of get those people at the same time. There’s the sense of a potential that wasn’t there before. It feels like we threw off some limitations, which is odd given that we’ve added a huge technological superstructure. That’s the digital we love, the digital that dissolves obstacles. Though I’m not sure whether the obstacles were real or imaginary (ditto their dissolution), so this is still an unresolved conflict.

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3 Responses to “Where Good Digital Marketing Stories Start”

  1. John Jameson

    Actually, the Heisenberg Uncertainity Principle states that the more precisely you know the position of a particle, the less precisely you can determine its momentum, and vice versa. What you described is the Observer Effect.

    But then, as Neils Bohr said, “Anyone who says they understand quantum physics doesn’t really understand quantum physics.”

  2. Ross E.

    Great rant. Reminded me of this joke:

    Q: Why are quantum physicists so poor at sex?
    A: Because when they find the position, they can’t find the momentum, and when they have the momentum, they can’t find the position.

    N.B. I’d like to believe that marketers can simultaneously find momentum and good positioning. Unresolved conflict? Possibly.

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