Why We Test Ugly Pictures (Or the unexpected virtue of ignorance)

I haven’t seen the Oscar-winning “Birdman (or the unexpected virtue of ignorance),”however I think it’s parenthetical title is actually eerily appropriate for the state of the advertising industry right now. Let me explain:

For the past 70-100 years, advertising has been the land of “Mad Men” – a boys club that only allowed huge brands with lots of money. The advertising industry rewarded these clients with lavish experiences, incredible pitches for new business, and beautiful, creative ideas. “Results” meant ideas – whoever could wow the client got the money. If you could continue wowing, you continued to get paid.

But within the last 15-or-so years things have changed. Publishing (i.e. media) moved online, and became much less centralized. Companies started selling online. This opened up new places for ads, and new ways for information to spread. Most importantly on the advertising side, this allowed for much-improved tracking regarding who people were, what they bought, what they were interested in, and more.

However an interesting (yet unsurprising) thing has happened – brands, and the large agencies that serve them, haven’t adjusted their methodology much. The “pitch” (i.e. the campaign) is created before the business is won, architected by a group of smart, creative people, and implemented with huge amounts of money to drive research, planning, tons of ad creation, media placements, and more. Then everyone holds their breath and hopes that this singular creative approach is best. Then everyone runs around to try and find data to support the assertion that it was, in fact, the best.

I don’t blame the industry for starting with such a structure. We didn’t have many other options 50 years ago! However now there are ways to implement advertising that save clients money, get results faster, and help brands know the answer before placing a bet. To clarify, when I say “results” I don’t mean creative ideas – I mean sales, leads, downloads – business objectives. Actionable business objectives. I don’t like getting hired for “wowing.” I like getting hired because our system works.

And so finally, 5 paragraphs later, I arrive at my point: The ad industry is still essentially “guessing” on the ads and audiences that work, even though it could be methodically testing and learning for sure before betting the entire media budget of it’s clients. All it takes is the simple admittance that one doesn’t actually know for sure what will work. Instead of spending hundreds of thousands on creative executions before ads even run, why not run ads very quickly and use purchase data to optimize campaigns? I’m not saying numbers should rule everything (I don’t want the pendulum to swing too far to the other side) but I want there to be more science in advertising. If there is one thing that scientists are great at, it’s admitting that they don’t know things. For example, Richard Feynman said “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”

We at Social Fulcrum admit we don’t know which ad to run, or which audience to target, without first gathering meaningful data. However, similar to the scientific method, we do have a process for helping to find the correct answers. We think this is a much more authentic (and successful) approach to advertising in the modern world.

This is the unexpected virtue of ignorance – by admitting that you do not know the answer, you are in fact more likely to find the answer. Instead of starting a campaign with ego and blinding conviction, you can combine creativity with a measured, data-driven approach.

This is why we test ugly images. Because more often than not, they win. They not only win, but sometimes outperform the competition by orders of magnitude.

The only reason I’m so confident in our approach is because we have the data to back it up: On average, we have lowered the cost-of-new-customer acquisition by at least 75% within 3 months for all our clients over the last 18 months (see below for some examples). All of the clients who have worked with us for at least 6 months have grown revenue by an average of 100% every 6 months.

The best part about our approach is that, whether it works or not, the reasons for performance are clear. If your testing is structured properly, and your data controlled as much as possible, the data points to incredibly clear insights. All you need is the self-discipline to fight your assumptions and the sophistication to accurately measure performance in the areas that count.

I don’t expect our approach to resonate with everyone. However I’m willing to wager that there are some of you who have been feeling skeptical for a long time about the confident, yet non-data-driven approach of the ad industry. I think that there is even a large contingent of people within the ad industry itself who feel unsure about the “results” that are pitched to clients as success (e.g. impressions, followers, “engagement,” clicks, tweets, visitors, etc.). I can tell you from experience – there is a better way to advertise. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. You might even win an award 😉

Do you agree or disagree? I welcome sensible comments of all kinds in the comment section below.

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