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Identify consumer problems ahead of time.

May 16, 2016

Lucy Baldwin

Marketing tech – A Perfect Science?

Today is a golden age for marketing tech. The digital world has opened up a plethora of new tools for eager marketers to play and experiment with it. Take social media for example, the mere existence of Twitter has enabled us to communicate and elicit a response in an instant. All it takes is a few pithy Tweets and a couple of hours in the Twittersphere, and we have our very own set of data points ready to analyse, test and refine into a theory about the type of content that makes a good Tweet.


As consumers, we are at the receiving end of this kind of test & refine marketing everyday. Have you ever searched for something on Google, maybe accommodation options for your next overseas holiday, or the best trainers for long distance running, only to be met with a host of emails from Trip Advisor in your inbox the following morning suggesting an array of options in the very location you were searching, or a series of fitness ads, or ‘marathon tips’ on your Facebook feed?

This is marketing tech in the digital age – highly targeted, tailored and delivered in an instant. I recently went to a Growth Marketing presentation by Paul Jeszenszky (Director of Online Marketing & Media at Airbnb), in which he spoke about marketing tech as a form of hypothesis testing. This got me thinking about marketing tech as a modern day paradigm of scientific enquiry.

In the 1930s Philosopher Karl Popper famously put forward a theory called critical rationalism to describe the method of science. His theory was motivated by a rejection of classical empiricism – the pursuit of coming up with a theory and then pointing to observations in nature to prove it. Instead, he argued, to be correctly labelled ‘science’, a theory must be falsifiable. That is, it must be possible to prove that theory false using empirical evidence. To that end, no scientific theory is ever really proven true, but in the absence of evidence that proves it’s falsity, we come to view it as reliable, scientific fact. According to Popper, we should all actively try to disprove our theories in order to remain true to the scientific pursuit of knowledge.

In practice, marketing tech comes up with a hypothesis and then tirelessly tests it with multiple executions – tweets, email subject lines, Facebook Posts, search terms. The effectiveness of these executions is then tested with the help of modern day tools such as Google Analytics, until eventually marketers arrive at a methodology which, at least for the time being, is effective. To that end then, marketing tech can be looked at as a modern day application of Popper’s verificationist theory.

While I do not dispute the utility of this method in the everyday pursuit of marketing a product or service, it strikes me that it isn’t very strategic. In the whole process of defining a proposition, creating a post, sharing it online, analysing and refining it, we never ask why. This worries me somewhat because, for all the big data we have access to, and all the fantastic tools we have at our disposal to analyse it, if we don’t know why something works, or doesn’t work, then we’re not much smarter than we were before. What is more, we don’t have much hope of developing long term strategies that work.

I’m not for one second suggesting that we abandon marketing tech in favour of some sort of armchair philosophy, but what I am saying is that marketing tech should never serve as a replacement for using qualitative insights to find out why, and developing strategies that work to fix the answers to the why for the long term. In a time of constant flux, it is more important than ever before that we try our hardest to identify consumer problems ahead of time, so that we have a hope of fixing them, and remaining relevant.


by Lucy Baldwin

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