The science of marketing

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One of the things I love about marketing is that it is part science and part art.  Take today for example — at one point I found myself debating minute details of a new web site design (which shade of yellow?  Gradient or not?), and a few hours later I was engrossed in a spreadsheet analyzing conversion rates for our loan-by-phone operation.  I enjoyed both tasks equally.

Just 25 years ago, marketing was a different game — more art than a science.  There were only a handful of ways to reach consumers and there was little ability to target, track, or analyze campaigns.  (Remember, in 1982 PC’s and spreadsheets were new inventions.)  Marketing involved a lot of guesswork and great creative was vitally important to a campaign’s success.  Even the best campaigns were inefficient.  There used to be an adage that went, “I know that 80% of my advertising dollars are wasted — I just don’t know which 80%!”. 

Fast-forward to today and a tectonic shift has occurred.  The Internet age has usered in a new breed of marketer — one that is equally comfortable with science and art.  A marketing exec is just as likely to have an MBA or engineering degree as a Madison Avenue pedigree.  Today’s marketers believe in testing, tracking, analyzing, and optimizing.  Creative is still important, but bottom-line results are more important.  It’s relatively easy to determine the ROI on marketing investments, which makes us both smarter and more accountable.  Put simply, we know which dollars are wasted.

For example, at ThinkCash, we spend the bulk of our marketing budget on search marketing, a channel that didn’t even exist 10 years ago.  Search ads are highly targeted but involve little in the way of creative — just 3 short lines of text.  Search marketing works like a stock market — you bid against your competitors to have your ad displayed more prominently.  Our search marketing team manages bids on over 10,000 search phrases, constantly analyzing performance and making adjustments in real time.  At any given time, I can find out exactly how much money we’ve spent and how many customers we’ve acquired.

And we’re starting to apply these same principles to traditional “offline” media such as television.  As I type, we’re running TV campaigns to test dozens of combinations of formats (30 seconds, 60 seconds, etc.), channels, and time slots.  We look at response data on a daily basis and optimize our media purchases to drive down our cost per call or web visit.

Marketing has come a long way, but the truth is that we’re only getting started.  25 years from now, people will look back on today’s practices and find them crude and imprecise.    Facebook made some announcements today that allude to what lies ahead.  As technology evolves, ads will become more targeted and less obtrusive.  “Social graphs” will play an important role in how advertising messages spread.  Nobody knows exactly how it will all play out, but it’s going to be a fun ride.

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