The Alchemy of Digital Marketing As Inspired by Renaissance Masters

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.. Einstein

I was reading Thomas Cahill’s exquisitely written “Mysteries of the Middle Ages”, when it occurred to me that to be brilliant in marketing today is more like being a Renaissance man; trained in a broad range of skills that mesh the rational with intuition and the quantitative with imagination.  Not only that, though, I chose to plant this post in the soil of “alchemy” and the renaissance tradition precisely because the central theme of a Renaissance man that applies to us here is their ability to traverse between the rational and imagination effortlessly. They afforded equal vigor to the pursuit of scientific truths as they did to philosophical contemplation. This paradoxical and improbable juxtaposition created the fertile soil for brilliant minds like Francis Bacon and Thomas Aquinas to shape the foundation of our modern, techno-rich, hyper-fast digital world.

This is the context then within which I profile the “digital Renaissance marketing man” of today. We need to be broadly trained across a wide range of skills, yet also be trained at blending the rational with the “ephemeral”. We must learn to command quantitative statistical theory, exhibit sound creative judgment, understand commerce requirements, demonstrate keen graphic sensibilities, provide key insights on sociological trends, follow emerging Internet technologies, be sensitive to the platonic-sized demographics shifts and be masterful influencers.

In seeking to achieve such competency, we can be guided by the example of our Renaissance teachers through our commitment to a rigorous learning path inspired by the noble goal of learning simply for learning sake. In keeping with this tradition, I will advocate understanding digital marketing for the sheer joy of learning, without thought to commercial gain. With true inquiry as our motivation, truths are discovered and once insight is achieved, these newly acquired skills are yours to command to rival the accomplishments of any marketing scholar.

The philosopher’s stone of marketing

The philosopher’s stone was the legendary, magical substance supposedly capable of turning base metals into gold. I like the illusion for our purposes here, especially as it is consistent with our renaissance inspiration.

So suspend your modern sensibilities for a time so that we may begin our training into the secret alchemy of turning ordinary marketing tactics (base metals in our alchemy world) into marketing gold with the philosopher’s stone, embodied in digital marketing. Indeed, I contend that digital marketing’s transformative power similar to the philosopher’s stone can be activated if one learns the secret blend which is, in equal measure, rational analysis combined with creative intuition to use digital marketing to engage us.

That’s the rub though. Achieving this magical balance can be as elusive as catching the unicorn in the thick forest – and no wonder – it’s very difficult. The first problem we encounter is that digital marketing is so new that it cannot be analyzed with rational metrics. Then there’s the very practical concern around risking resources with new programs where it’s anyone’s guess as to how they will perform.  On the creative side, you have to rely on digital agencies or small technology companies to interpret the technology into a creative concept, often clouding your instincts given the sheer novelty of the medium.

But again disciplined training will help us rise above the challenges because we can learn new ways to evaluate these new media, and in ways that let us merge rational metrics with intuitive sensibilities. How we do it? By making a study of the Big 6 – the primary elements or ingredients of successful digital marketing.

6 Elements That Unleash the Transformative Power of Digital Marketing

I put forth what I think are the six main elements of digital marketing, as key to us today as the four  “roots” or elements of earth, air, fire and water were to Empedocles, a Greek philosopher and scientist  who lived in 5th cent BC Sicily.  With these 6 primary elements, one can begin spin magical digital marketing programs reasonably and reliably (notice that I continually merge the magic with the metric – a skill that comes with deliberate practice).

1) Seek knowledge – not just information.

A researcher once told me to be suspicious of any analyst who said numbers were objective. He helped me understand that data can provide the answer to any question – the trick is to know how to interpret the data.

I make this point to highlight how important it is in any quantitative exploratory that you be absolutely clear about what you want to know going in. You can drown in data without having learned how to do anything better. To avoid the “data analysis paralysis” trap, be disciplined and work on getting data that you can clearly see driving to a specific business result. It requires a lot of self discipline not to accumulate all types of data, but it will cost far more in a lack of focused answers than all the mounds of data will be worth. So seek out knowledge – not information.

2) Create solid information systems.

Building on the point above, creating solid business information systems is sadly often, overlooked and neglected, especially in technology companies (ironic – no?).  This is a great pity because solid information systems are a key touchstone of any successful digital marketing campaign, arguably any business.

Eventually, though, every company comes to the “OMG, we need a system to track campaigns” moment. Then “all of sudden” there is a flurry of urgency to buy or build systems that are dicey and prone to data glitches. This is a recipe for disaster for a couple of reasons.

First, building information systems takes discipline, patience and a creative approach to information architecture. If ever there was a time to spend money on outside help, this would be it. Get an information architect or business analyst to help you create a system with a management dashboard to get at high level, mission critical information quickly. Time is not your main consideration here – creating a solid system is.

Second, know that information systems take time to mature to work out the kinks. If the success of any program is wholly dependent on the data from these new systems … hold your breathe and be extra sure to manage everyone’s expectations. It is as likely to fail as it is to work in the first try at it.

If you find yourself in this “OMG” position, take firm hold of this project and drive it an actionable conclusion. Do not leave it solely to data architects or business analysts. Apply your judgment to create an information system that permits you to give data its due without ever being enslaved by it. If done correctly, this type of infrastructure will illuminate your business because you can trust the information to be solid and reliable without ever blinding you in the process.

3) Every program has a purpose and a place.

Yes, there are loads of new technologies out there and more to come and in greater frequency too, so it becomes difficult to evaluate all of them. To stay head of the curve, learn to apply the “rule of purpose” to each new idea. This rule requires that before any new technology is considered, it is linked to a specific marketing program or goal. By applying the “rule of purpose” you will evaluate only those programs that can drive business results today without wasting a lot of time on programs that are cool but not useful at the moment.

4) Use common sense in evaluating new approaches in digital marketing.

We’ve all been there. The sales person, properly groomed with the right amount of product to sculpt his perfected coiffed style, is giving you all the right promises; low CPA, low CPM, low CPR or high conversion, high efficiency or high impact.

But by the time he is done, it sounds almost too good to be true. If you find yourself getting that, “too good to be true” feeling, that’s your first red flag. Your common sense is trying to tell you something and you should listen with an appropriate amount of skepticism. Ask for business cases, be clear about how the program will be measured and include a contingency in the contract if something goes wrong.

Yet, the seduction of these programs demands we consider them seriously. We can heed the call only if the programs adhere to some basic requirements:

  • It can not divert more than 3% of budget in terms of time, cost and labor
  • It can not exceed your cost per acquisition metrics – and in most cases, these programs should beat current CPA metrics to make it worthwhile to divert efforts
  • The program does not rely one just one business metrics – but includes at least two success metrics
  • There is a clear “out” clause

Finally, after you have done your due diligence, be sure to apply the good old common sense filter again to the mix. If the program can withstand that scrutiny, then give it a whirl. Win or lose – you win because you learned something.

5) There’s no substitute for “hands on” experience.

Sorry to say this but nothing replaces personal experience. Renaissance training required lots of experimentation and we would be well advised to follow their lead. Unfortunately, sometimes agencies insulate us from this practical, real world experience much to our disadvantage. If they are a digital agency, then they advocate programs that are very technical, so no real personal learning is gained.  The larger agencies kinda avoid the whole mess by sticking to the mass media programs they can execute efficiently within their fees (labor intensive programs like social media is a nightmare for larger agencies given falling fees).

That pretty much leaves you on your own. So to understand this stuff, you gotta simply roll you sleeves up and play with it yourself. Use social media (be safe please) to tweet and twine so you can experience the interplay within the digital social world. Explore how Facebook is viral but within a limited sphere. Try new approaches within semantic and real time search engines.

It’s critical to stay curious and maintain a willingness to experiment and play. As we all know, play is a great teacher, so avail yourself of this powerful method of learning.

6) Celebrate the creative mind.

For those of us on the marketing front lines, we want silver bullet marketing answers. For instance, Martin Lindstrom’s book, Buy-ology, is highly seductive because it gives us a well organized list of mechanisms that can be used to evoke specific purchase responses. Yet, his well documented set of markers and triggers obscures the real art of creating successful marketing – the creative spark that draws us in and compels us forward in the purchase process. This creative magic is the powerful pixie dust we all desire in our marketing programs, but make no mistake – it is creative magic steeped in science. Really? You bet and here’s how it works.

First, learn to trust the accuracy of your inner voice to guide your judgment of a campaign. Love or hate – allow yourself to first appreciate your reaction and then try to understand why you reacted as you did.

Next, marry your creative instincts with the science of digital testing. Exploit the internet’s ability to let you test incessantly and iteratively. It provides a great learning laboratory for new ideas and combinations. This is how art can be realized through science and how we can bring the best of both the rational and the creative to work together.

Finally, utilize all the new learning in neuro-marketing courtesy of Lindstrom and others to add a fully integrated and optimized approach. Mix it all up and you get the magic potion that transforms mudane marketing into marketing that sustains businesses in these transformative times.

In conclusion, dear students, we are reminded that in the Renaissance, men understood how to merge the ethereal, sublime nature of art and magic with logic and rational thought. With that as our model, we can create the new “magic” of today’s brilliant digital marketing world.

Men of science are men of art living on the edge of mystery… borrowed from J. Robert Oppenheimer

Judy Shapiro

http://twitter.com/judyshapiro

PS – Given my training as a historian, I am deeply grateful to (and envious of ) Thomas Cahill for his clarity and precision with which he brings the lives of people from 800 years ago to life with relevance in today’s seemingly removed culture.

I hope the tone of this post is appreciated for its attempt to playfully discuss challenging problems in marketing.

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3 Responses

  1. quite an imagination you have there. I must say – brilliant.

  2. You seem betwixt and between two worlds. Interesting and inspiring, if a bit weird 🙂 Ray

  3. Not your everyday concept.

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