One of the most interesting elements of marketing is how the way we market to others is almost completely different from how we would want to be marketed to. Who among us would choose to place ourselves on unending email lists? Or seen an ad and wondered, “What did I do that made them think I would want to see this?” Or bought something online and be presented with that product in a remarketing campaign for weeks after?
My favorite aspect of this idea is that of metrics.
Are We Over-measured and Over-optimized?
There’s a conversation in the content marketing world that lists the “optimal” length of certain types of content. Obviously, a tweet should be less than 140 characters and maybe even have enough room to be easily re-tweeted, but an optimal opening paragraph length, blog post, infographic size and video duration? Did you know there’s even supposed to be an optimal hashtag length (six characters). That’s like saying Star Wars is a great movie because it is exactly 121 minutes long, which is true. That’s why no one likes The Godfather (far too long) and 10 Things I Hate About You (too short).
Welcome to the age where everything can be measured; thus, we quickly compile an average, or correlate some number to the outcome and decide that these things are “optimal.” Chart them out and a clear “through line” emerges that completely ignores the fact that there are often more outliers than things within the range of the average.
We aren’t just talking about averages and optimum sizes. We’re looking at clicks and traffic and making very clear decisions about what works and what doesn’t, what we should keep and what we should throw away.
But tracking clicks and the like assumes a very transactional world, one I don’t think we live in.
Do Unto Others, But Not Unto Ourselves
Let’s go back to the idea that we use marketing “best practices” that we would never allow to be used on ourselves.
For example, according to tracking data, stories about the career paths available to your employees may not see a lot of traffic. It’s usually not a particularly sexy story, and these kinds of stories can be less engaging than stories about individuals doing something strange or unique.
On the face of it, this story isn’t very useful. It has no clear connection to a trackable action like an application that can be easily measured. In fact, basic metrics like page views or visit duration don’t do very much to show that this piece of content may be swaying everyone who sees it. Or that this is the sort of information the best candidates are looking for to make a decision.
Would you rather be popular or create a meaningful impact?
The joke in rock ‘n’ roll is that the Velvet Underground’s first album only sold a few thousand copies, but everyone who bought it started a band. Now, is that album more or less important than, say, the last Madonna album or the last Sting album, whose numbers dwarf the Velvet Underground’s but even fans are hard-pressed to remember what those albums were called?
The Map Is Not the Territory
Are we so busy measuring and evaluating ROI that instead of helping us make decisions, we let it make the decisions for us? Are we blindly following and optimizing the ROI path to our detriment?
A map is not the territory. The map describes the territory, but there is so much more information in the ground than can be put in a map, as a map is designed to simplify the territory so we can make decisions. But blind faith in your map or GPS means you are in danger of driving your car into a lake.
As marketers, we want to think that we need to show our message to an audience X times to get a Y rate of retention. As humans, we know this is folly. We don’t want math, we want persuasion, we want creativity, we want authenticity. These are the things that move us to action.
Let’s take it to extremes. It is easy to say that social media and content are not direct drivers of applications. What does drive applications are ads that direct people to job descriptions. So let’s let ROI drive: Let’s remove our social presence, and remove all non-job description content from our site. Let’s make the application process as close to one-click as we can.
Congratulations! You’ve optimized against a single metric and are effectively driving people to your job descriptions and made it easy for people to flood your ATS with applicants (who may or may not be qualified). ROI-thinking calls this a win. Your boss may beg to differ as great candidates can find no compelling reason to apply and wander away.
Thinking in Systems
Which leads me to my final point. Optimizing on ROI assumes that all your channels, ads, placements and tactics work independently, when in reality they are a system.
Of course you know the old saw about how, “I know half my marketing is wasted, but I don’t know what half.” Maybe it isn’t a joke as much as a truism about people, that we are messy and strange, and Google weird things because they popped into our heads. Maybe we bounce from site to site, not always with a clear intention, but on the lookout for something interesting and useful, something we will know when we see it. Maybe there will never be a way to determine “which half doesn’t work” because it all works together in a system.
Not every element will have a clear ROI. What’s the ROI on customizing your phone’s background? What’s the ROI on having a nice office? What’s the ROI on your mom?
In the ROI-obsessed world, you are always on the lookout for that ad or channel or page that “isn’t performing.” In the recruiting space, maybe it’s Glassdoor, because you don’t see a clear connection to having stories on that site and responding to reviews and something trackable and measurable. But Glassdoor started not as a transactional space, but as a place where people could do research (what’s the ROI on having a library in your town?). Until Glassdoor started posting their own jobs, you might conclude time spent working on that site was wasted.
But we know that candidates (including the best ones) stop off there at a high rate during their research phase. This is a good thing because candidates who spend time researching your employer brand are more likely to be informed about your brand, leading to better candidates and better-fitting hires. Just ask your recruiters. Take that “underperforming” piece out of the puzzle and you don’t have a more effective system, just a more optimized one.
Metrics are incredibly effective in helping us understand recruiting processes and ecosystems, but they can’t be mistaken for facts. They help us spot trends or even suggest new approaches, and can identify things that aren’t worth spending money on. But in an effort to optimize, we can end up focusing too closely on the ROI numbers and miss the bigger (and far more valuable) picture.