January 23, 2012

The Human Factor

If I told you that a tortoise had a body temperature of 83 degrees, could you tell me if that animal is healthy or sick? Unless you had some idea of what normal was -- what it's temperature should be -- there's no way to know what the number means.

We have a great deal of data and a great many metrics about online advertising. Other than direct marketing, however, we have little to no idea what all these numbers mean and how they relate to successful advertising.

We are being blinded by science.

On the other hand, we also have feelings and intuitions. But because feelings and intuitions are not very scientific they have become non-factors.

We know, for example, that because we work in advertising, people often ask us whether  we like this or that TV spot. And that no one ever asks us whether we like this or that display ad.

We know that in two weeks the web will be inundated with chatter about Super Bowl TV spots, but TV will have almost no chatter about Super Bowl-related web marketing. The day after the Super Bowl I will once again be invited to go on TV and pontificate on this this year's crop of TV spots, but not a single question will be asked about online Super Bowl advertising.

We know that when we have a TV campaign on the air, or even a radio campaign, we can feel its presence. But when we have online ads or "content" we feel nothing of the sort

We can see that presidential primary candidates -- who literally research their success at persuasion every day -- are using every penny they can scrape up to get their messages on TV. They use the web to raise money from their small cadre of true believers, but when it's time to persuade the masses, the money goes to TV.

You would think this evidence would convince us -- we who are supposed to be media savvy -- that the web is not everything it's cracked up to be as a persuasive advertising medium. But we have deluded ourselves that because the web has great cultural impact it must also have great advertising impact. Even though the evidence is less than compelling.

We have convinced ourselves that consumers have the time and inclination to search the web for "content" (whatever the hell that is) that we -- and tens of thousands of others just like us -- create in support of selling our products when, in fact, consumers continue to show little or no interest in our self-serving "content."

We have tortured the logic of advertising and tied ourselves up in knots to the point that we no longer believe the evidence of our eyes. Yes, as a former science teacher I know full well there are times when science is right and our instincts are wrong. But this isn't one of them.

Most of the web metrics we see have the appearance of science because they are numbers. But they are not science at all, because we don't yet know what they signify. They are numbers without context or meaning.

It's like knowing the tortoise's body temperature but having no idea what it should be.

Until we know what these numbers mean, and whether they relate in any way to advertising impact and persuasion, we'd be well-served to have a little less faith in the data and a little more faith in our eyes and our instincts.

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