Learn-Forward Marketing

Learn-Forward Marketing

I remember first getting Seth Godin’s book Permission Marketing. It was during the first dotcom boom, and this book was one of a few that really changed the philosophy of marketing at the time. In it, he argues that we need to ask permission from consumers in order to market to them (think opt-in), but once they are in, we are free to start the exchange.

Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them. It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention.

This book changed the way a lot of people thought about marketing. It was the early beginnings of a transition from push to pull, or from outbound to inbound marketing. Right around this time, BMW launched both their eponymous film series (and the career of Clive Owen), and the world work-up to the idea of storytelling over advertising; or maybe storytelling as advertising.

Ever since then, the marketing industry has been fumbling its way forward; improving in some ways, reverting in others. We’ve started to get our heads around digital and now mobile. Some have embraced this “modern” marketing and are doing well, but not quite as well as we used to; and this is what got me thinking that it might be time for another philosophical shift, or another leap in marketing evolution.
Call it Learn-Forward Marketing.

It is a mash-up of Lean Startup and a more positive spin on failing-forward, which has always struck me as still failing. The idea is very simple. The goal of marketing is to learn. In fact, the marketing organization is well positioned to be the fastest-learning organization in the enterprise. Why is this?

We should be engaging with our consumers in a measurable, minute-by-minute dance. We have the most advanced technologies that have ever existed for creating, distributing, measuring and analyzing the behavior of consumers. But instead of making the most of this, we are mostly paralyzed. Call it a function of too much information yielding too little in the way of insights.

What we need is a different mindset. That’s what Learn-Forward is – a fundamental mindset shift from a mindset about reach, impressions and frequency to hypothesis, experiment and results— it’s not about advertising, it’s about learning.

Every one of our efforts should start with a hypothesis – in fact, just admitting that what we are doing is testing a hypothesis is a HUGE step forward. We’ve been taught in the agency world for too long that we are to provide solutions to our clients’ problems. Call it one-too-many-episodes-of-Mad-Men, but we seemed to have adopted the posture that our job is to waltz into the client’s office and reveal the wisdom from on high; to share with them the collected years of our insight and brilliance boiled down into an elegant solution.

There’s just one problem with this. Human beings cannot predict the future.

Even if our dispensed wisdom is insightful, built on modern marketing with cool tech and a great brand strategy—we still do not know if it is going to work, and brands are investing billions of dollars every year in programs that just don’t work, and consumers are footing the bill.

What we need instead is a new mindset: one that is a little more curious and humble; one that puts the creative genius of the team to work developing a hypothesis, designing experiments to test it, and then iterating quickly and scaling up only what works.

We call it scaling up the currency, which means that we should test with pennies and then nickels and then dimes and so on, up to dollars as well. This means that we have to rebuild our marketing organizations and our agencies. This means that we have to redo our ‘copy training’ and replace it with training in the scientific (marketing) method. It means that we have to unlearn about five decades of bad habits, drain away our hubris and learn how to do it all over again.

Where to start?

I’d start by reading the two-volume set of books How Brands Grow, because they debunk a lot of our marketing myths and superstitions and expose it as the empty dogma it really is. From there? Well, grab an eighth grader (or at least their science textbook) and brush up on the scientific method. Then get started.

There’s a lot of good blogs on Growth Hacking and a few books on the topic, as well as Eric Reis’ work on Lean Start-Ups. All of this is just coming together, but it is doing so at a very rapid pace. So, those of us who want to stay current are trying to learn from one another as fast as we can, and perhaps that’s the key to the entire approach—learning never stops—not for the brand, and not for the people who market them.