Thursday, December 8, 2011

All I Really Need to Know about Fixing Marketing I Learned in Auto Shop

The other day, I took a look at a marketing program that a client considered underperforming.  As I began to investigate, I realize that my approach resembled something I learned 25 years ago in a completely different place, the oil-slicked, unheated garage of my high school’s auto shop classroom.

Naff off, Robert Fulghum

As I looked at the components of the program, I realized that I didn’t know exactly what to look for, but instead, I knew I would find it if I kept looking for it.  In broad terms, that approach applies both to marketing programs and to balky lawnmower engines.

Let me give you a little background.  I attended a fine public school dedicated to sending all of its high school graduates on to higher education and they succeeded at a rate of about 85%, IIRC.  As part of their goal in developing well-rounded young men and women, they insisted on two semesters of practical arts.  Most of my honors-level classmates chose home economics or drafting.  I had different proclivities and chose not one but two semesters of auto shop.

Mr. White presided over auto shop with the assurance of a man who realized that no one cared what he did in his classroom as long as no one got hurt.  After all, Yale never asked a prospective student if he had ever changed his own oil (disclosure: Yale certainly never asked me, and they didn’t accept me, either).  As a result, Mr. White’s pedagogy differed mightily from the classical approach.

An example: one day, I came into the shop to find a two-tone gray Plymouth Horizon (short story: a lousy car even by Detroit small-car standards of the mid-80s; the original design came from FRANCE, for Pete’s sake).  I turned to Mr. White and asked “whose car is that?”  He just shook his head in response.  A minute later, my classmate Jack Smith walked in, turned to Mr. White and said “whose car is that?”  Mr. White shook his head again.

“See,” he said, “that’s why you boys will never be good mechanics.  A real mechanic would ask ‘what’s wrong with it?’”

Sure enough, the class’s star student, ace mechanic Mike Bergomasco, walked in, looked up at the car and said “what’s wrong with it?”  For the record, it needed a new muffler.

Mr. White’s straightforward approach to instruction led to a similarly straightforward approach to diagnosing mechanical problems.  In one exercise, he asked each student to take an old lawnmower engine from a shelf.  “Fix it,” he said.

“How are we supposed to do that?” we asked.

“Take it apart and figure it out yourself.”

Perhaps Mr. White had more guile that we supposed; few things motivate teenage boys more consistently than the opportunity to take things apart with tools.  More importantly, however, this approach taught us quickly, wordless and completely.

First, we unbolted the header, essentially the lid of the engine that keeps the combustion of fuel and air from flinging the piston into the sky.  My untrained saw nothing.  Indeed, the header had nothing wrong with it; it made a tight seal with the engine block.  Below the header sat the valve that controlled the flow of fuel and air into the engine and exhaust out of the engine (this was a two-stroke engine  with only one valve, unlike most auto engines that have two or four valves per cylinder).

The valve looked pitted.  Here, Mr. White pointed out that we needed to re-seat the valve.  Essentially, that meant sanding down the rear surface of the valve so that it fit smoothly into its fitting.  Still, the pitting didn’t seem like something that would keep an engine from working entirely.  So I kept on pulling the engine apart.

After the valve job, I removed the piston, which looked a little ratty but still seemed pretty solid.  Next came the crank.  The crank turns the up-and-down motion of the piston into a spinning motion that can in turn power a wheel or, in the case of a lawnmower, a spinning blade.  

While the crank looked solid enough, it wouldn’t turn.  The crank plate--the cast iron piece that formed the bottom of the engine and held the crank in place--had a major dent in it.  The crank couldn’t turn because the flange that held one end of the crank was bent out of shape--a vaguely trapezoidal hole for a round peg, as it were.  You didn’t need Mr. White’s master’s degree in engineering or decades of experience to diagnose the problem.  You just needed to keep taking things off the engine until you found the thing that didn’t work.

Hopefully, you’ve gotten the point by now.  Just as an engine has a series of parts that can reveal clues about its overall performance, or lack thereof, marketing programs have their parts.  Each one, in turn, tells a story.

Marketers need to have the confidence to start looking at those parts and look for those that seem out of whack.  Specifically, look at measurements.  If a webform, for instance, has a large dropoff in users, where does the dropoff occur?  Look at completion numbers page by page--field by field if necessary--to understand where the roadblock falls.  You’ll know it when you see it.

Similarly, email campaigns have several potential failure points indicated by key measurements such as open rate, clickthrough rate and conversion.  A low open rate in comparison with other campaigns might indicate an underperforming subject line or bad targeting.  So, if the open rate seems low, follow-on observations should include comparison of subject lines and targeting approaches.

Of course, experience helps.  Mr. White might have been able to diagnose that busted crankplate without picking up a wrench.  However, no marketer should feel intimidated by a pile of results; just keep looking until you find something out of whack.  Before long, you’ll learn to spot the problems pretty easily.

And, in case you were wondering, the Horizon belonged to the gym teacher, Mr. Long.

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