It's Better to Know: What Cancer and Back-to-School Taught Me About Marketing

I had a neighbor recently diagnosed with breast cancer and as the community has risen up around her to provide her encouragement, gifts, meals, and shuttling-children-to-soccer services, it has got me thinking about tests.

Tests in school are an opportunity for you to demonstrate your mastery (or lack there of) of a subject. Your grade on a well-written test should tell you where you are relative to the standard set by the course and perhaps relative to your peers in the same field of study. 

Medical tests are different. They test for the presence of something or the degree of something. Not against some standard (a good score is always 100), but against a backdrop of normal ranges. They can show progress, just like school tests, but interpreting them can be a challenge.

But both type of tests strike fear into our hearts. Being measured is hard. But is it better to avoid the test? Is it ever better not to know? 

I certainly am thankful that my friend’s test results indicated that she could take action to rid herself of cancer and she is taking those actions. Had she not had the test, she would not have known to take action and the cancer might have taken her.  

And without grades on tests throughout a semester, your grade at the end of the course would be a surprise, and perhaps an unpleasant one. As I was reminded by my children's teachers, tests early in the school year are meant to provide direction and insight. And without constant feedback, you might not know what to focus your study time on and you might not seek out the help or assistance that you need to master a concept or skill.

In marketing, there has been a huge push for measurement and metrics in the past decade. Online advertising has made it possible for even smaller companies or smaller marketing budgets to rely on metrics to help them make investment decisions. Advertising is measured in clicks and conversions. Events can be measured by attendance and a follow-on marketing automation lead nurturing program.  Even digital signage can be measured with sensors and cameras to deliver metrics like impressions, dwell time, and even basic demographic information.  Goals can be set. Campaigns measured against those goals. The value of the campaign taken all the way from the lead to the sale. 

And I have seen marketers both embrace and reject this kind of analysis and the impact it has on their decision making. Some use the metrics to validate experiments, to test variants, and to invest in what has been working. To let the data lead them. Others use it as a source of insight, but choose not to reduce their decision to a scientific equation. To recognize that there are some things that can’t yet be measured. As in medicine and in education, there is both art and science in marketing.

John Wanamaker, the pioneering retail merchant of the turn of the 20th century, is claimed to have said “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” Despite all the progress, I still feel like that is true. Although I do believe that our probability of success is higher than 50/50 with today’s toolkits, there is still an art to the process of reaching people in a way that affects their thinking and their actions. And throughout, more relevant insight and data can provide confidence. And just like the healing processes in our bodies or in our ability to learn something new, that confidence can make all the difference!

This article was first published on LinkedIn Pulse.