How to Address the Marketing Measurement Paradox

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One of the marketing thought leaders I pay close attention to is Mark Schaefer. Mark is the author of several highly-regarded books and the principal author of the widely-read {grow} blog.

Last month, Mark published a blog post arguing that today’s marketers are working in a world dominated by malignant complexity. Mark wrote that malignant complexity means “that the insane complications and unintended consequences of rapid technological change makes it difficult to understand our world, let alone predict what’s next.”

In the future, Mark wrote, the most successful marketers will have to relax their expectations for “predictable outcomes and reliable measures.” He summed up his view this way:



“In an age of malignant complexity and unrelenting change, some aspects of marketing measurement will become a leap of faith. In some cases, the speed of business will outstrip our ability to forecast and measure. Perhaps non-measured, speed-driven marketing management will become the norm, a best practice.”

Mark’s post is sure to raise the eyebrows of many marketing leaders because the conventional wisdom in the marketing community is that measuring the performance of marketing is now more achievable than ever. But then, Mark has always been willing to tell us when he believes “the emperor has no clothes.” If you need proof of that, go back and read his 2014 blog post about “content shock.”

Expressions of the conventional wisdom are easy to find. For example, I took the following quotation from the website of a major provider of marketing technologies:

“Building analytics into your marketing strategy empowers your marketing and sales teams by giving you the ability to measure the impact of each marketing investment. Data enables marketers to confidently identify which parts of the marketing efforts deliver the optimal return on investment (ROI), including the performance of channels, specific calls-to-action (CTAs), and individual pieces of content, such as blog posts or gated resource guides.”

A more skeptical view is captured in the following quotation from a recent article published at the Harvard Business Review website:

“Marketing’s environment is typically much ‘noisier’ that the factory floor in terms of unknown, unpredictable, and uncontrollable factors confounding precise measurement. Marketing activities can also be subject to systems effects where the portfolio of marketing tactics work together to create an outcome . . . Marketing actions may also work over multiple time frames . . . Finally, it is often difficult to attribute financial outcomes solely to marketing, because businesses frequently take actions across functions that can drive results.”

Which of these views is correct? The answer is, both are accurate, at least in part. Some aspects of marketing performance are more measurable now than ever, largely because of the explosion of available data about customers and the expanding capabilities of marketing and analytics technologies. At the same time, however, measuring the impact of marketing on business financial outcomes is just as difficult and challenging today as ever.

So how should marketing leaders deal with the measurement challenge? The first step is to accept the measurement paradox part of the reality of marketing. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Marketing leaders must also effectively communicate the realities of marketing to other senior business leaders. This means the senior marketing leader needs to have evidence-based conversations with other senior executives about what aspects of marketing can be measured precisely, and what aspects will always require the use of assumptions, correlations, and probabilities.



These discussions will help establish reasonable expectations for marketing measurement and simultaneously enhance the credibility of the marketing leader in the C-suite.

Illustration courtesy of Zeev Barkan via Flickr CC.

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