Over the last few weeks I’ve touched on some of the root causes of marketers’ overwhelming—paralyzing, even—trust issues. The next one up is a hurdle that’s likely the most overlooked yet controllable source of distress: you, the marketer, and your own self-doubt. I routinely encounter seasoned digital marketers getting so caught up second guessing themselves that they can’t move forward in generating new hypotheses, initiating meaningful testing, and rolling out best practice-driven optimization.

Scratch below the surface a bit and it becomes clear that this stems from a belief that everyone’s optimizing and expanding in a bigger/better/faster/more creative way than you are. Go 5,000’ up, though, and the confidence lag isn’t just yours, it’s pervasive in organizations big and small, for established marketers and new innovators. This year’s Adobe Digital Marketing Optimization Survey highlighted that everyone wants to be better, with triple-digit conversions—the ultimate prize—sitting just off in the distance. We know that companies with an inherent culture of optimization experience conversion rates 100 percent higher than those that don’t, on average. But many marketers are challenged because they don’t know where to begin and feel barred from taking the necessary risks. They simply don’t trust their tacit knowledge, staff, or other critical resources to get the job done. It’s such a basic form of distress, but it’s one that exacerbates the existing trust issues while bringing the equation full circle, from human to machine, machine back to human.

But beyond the time spent second-guessing, these personal trust issues can keep marketers from taking the kinds of calculated risks that drive meaningful business momentum and innovation. Even a kernel of a test idea or campaign and the hypothesis that ensues can be enough. Don’t trust that hypothesis? You don’t have to. Take a guess, then make informed speculations and trust the data—even if, for now, it’s looking a little disconnected or misleading. Pushing that notion further, it’s essential that marketers take risks. Discomfort is normal—more than half of marketers believe they have to take more risks, but only 30 percent consider themselves risk takers. And despite their awareness of this necessary change, 14 percent actually know what’s needed, and how to make these shifts.

I’m not advocating jumping out of a plane without a parachute. This is more about smart, thoughtful, calculated risks and insightful experimentation based on existing data, tacit knowledge, and carefully articulated key performance indicators (KPIs). These risks are, more or less, safe. Think about it in terms of day-to-day testing initiatives. We always hold back a certain amount of traffic as the control and, ultimately, look at that control versus the “challenger”—in this case, whatever it is we’re testing. If the test doesn’t pan out as we predicted, at least we have our “base” that performed better.

Notice I didn’t say a test could “fail.” Why not? Although in some instances a period of testing and experimentation—the calculated risk period—doesn’t produce the anticipated results, it’s still a success. You proved it didn’t work and, because some traffic was withheld, you still maintained site engagement within that cut. And all of that is truly a win because it produced actionable, meaningful, data-driven results that can be leveraged to make smarter business decisions. “Failure” is a lot to take on. No wonder we, as marketers, are left doubling back, questioning and doubting every step of the way.

Back to smart experimentation. All of this should be seen as well-managed risk taking. Taking that a step further, the more risks you take, the more returns you’ll have—no failure, lots of reward . . . what’s to doubt? Our optimization survey noted that the top 20 percent of respondents—those truly optimizationally mature organizations that are experiencing the highest conversion rates from their efforts—see tests as critical decision-making tools that can be leveraged to assess and evaluate anything and everything and, moreover, are using multiple methods, platforms, and capabilities to get the job done. Stack that against the remaining 80 percent that tap into multiple methods less than half of the time, and it’s clear that this type of meaningful experimentation matters. Get comfortable with this sort of risk taking, and give yourself a runway for experimentation. It always pays off (I’m willing to be that definitive) and, seemingly counterintuitively, helps build trust because you’re playing with lower stakes to start. By the time you tee up a new initiative, you’ve already invested in the risk and it’s less experimentation and more well-grounded implementation that you can confidently get behind.

This need for risk taking—and marketers’ inherent aversion to it—is something we see every day at Adobe. According to Mark Zablan, who runs Adobe’s digital marketing business in EMEA, “marketers, as individuals, also need to undergo reinvention—and we’re finding that the individual reinvention is one of the hardest. It takes a true commitment to education, risk taking, and stepping outside one’s comfort zone to kick off the marketers’ journey.” It’s uncomfortable, sure, but we “have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable—with taking risks and with strategizing without sometimes fully understanding a situation.” We all have trust issues, but we need to push through and test those new, sometimes uncomfortable waters to gain the kind of meaningful experimentation that moves the needle. Brands that embrace experimentation are, simply, more successful than those that don’t. Which do you want to be?

As I said in an earlier post, marketers have trust issues—and why shouldn’t they? HubSpot’s Erik Devaney called 2014 “a year of self-doubt” for marketers. But it’s far from a new phenomenon. Healthy risk taking and smart experimentation has long been a part of the journey. Stop worrying that everyone is doing more and doing it better, with more sophisticated resources and greater tacit knowledge, because they aren’t. Embrace change and leverage knowledge to overcome the distrust and distress. And if you’re already feeling good about some calculated risk taking—nearly half indicated you’re hoping to take more risks in the year ahead—jump in with the knowledge you’ve rooted your leap in meaningful data. Then, once you’re done, take a breath and trust yourself, your team, and your ability to, at the very least, take a chance . . . so long as it’s a data-driven one.

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