Friday, June 22, 2012

How to deliver bad (data) news

Today’s Dilbert comic strip seemed to reflect something I’ve been thinking about lately: what to do when marketing data say something your client or stakeholder doesn’t want to hear.

Although marketers--particularly direct marketers--have used data to tell their stories for years, the prominence of data brought about by the Internet has made data more important than ever to anyone involved with marketing.  As a result, many more marketers now have to contend with unequivocal results, good or bad.  So I’d like to share some of my tips for delivering the news when results fail to meet expectations.

In the pre-Internet days, particularly in mass-media brand marketing, ad agencies could tap-dance around bad news with relative ease.  If a TV campaign failed to push sales up, the agency had a whole host of excuses at the ready, including a bad economy, rain in key markets or unfavorable pricing.  Moreover, the agency could point to successes with anecdotal evidence such as a mention in Johnny Carson’s monologue or a spoof on Saturday Night Live.

Not so with data.

Marketers can not only track end results, such as sales or requests for information, but also they can see exactly what went wrong on the intermediate steps.  Did people click on on the banner or email?  How many exposures got delivered?  How many people visited the landing page and then bounced?  Which keywords worked?  And so on.

In theory, this proliferation of data should bring nothing but joy and contentment to the marketer’s heart.  After all, more information means a better perspective for fixing what ain’t working.

However, data can also tell a marketer “you’re wrong.”  If a marketing executive asks her team to employ a specific tactic and it goes wrong, the data leave her no place to hide.  The weasel words available to pre-Internet marketers no longer apply.  Thus, the person who presents these data may serve as an unwelcome messenger.

Leonidas hated bad data almost as much as he hated Persians

So, what’s a messenger to do?  Three quick tips:

  1. Know your audience.  Some marketers take bad news better than others.  In fact, some appreciate your ability to sniff out a problem and will reward you for it.  For them sugarcoating the truth represents a lack of trust.  However, not all marketers have this healthy an ego.
  2. Be frank about what worked and circumspect about what didn’t.  Chances are, your campaign had some bright spots.  Make sure to highlight those.  However, take care in presenting problem areas.  In these cases, employ what photographers call the circle of confusion.

    Again, sugarcoating failure won’t work.  However, explaining why you thought it would work highlights the thought that went into your recommendations.  Additionally, discussing possible reasons for the failure of your assumptions softens the blow by underlining the difficulty of the decision.

    Yes, this is the
    “it’s OK, it happens to lots of guys” defense.
  3. Recommend immediate remedial steps and/or alternatives.  Show that you’ve been thinking about it and do not expect to be bailed out.  However, take care to keep the discussion away from “I told you so” suggestions.

Got any other favorite tactics?  Please share in the comments!

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