A Marketer's Dilemma: You Can't Always Feel Your Mistakes

hand crafting a pianoI recently watched Note by Note, a really stellar documentary on the making of Steinway pianos.  Steinway is one of the only brands in the world to still make their pianos 100% by hand.  Their craftsmen are very passionate, interestingly diverse, and extremely skilled.  The movie is as much about the workers and their individual stories as it is about pianos.  One of the piano makers said something that stuck out to me:

When you work with your hands, you know a mistake.  You can just feel it sitting right there and you can fix it.

The quote doesn't seem that complex at first, but as you continue to ponder the remark, it will hit you on deeper and deeper levels.  Being able to truly feel mistakes and fix them as we go along is a rather unique situation available to only a select group of professions.  Craftsmen, programmers, and chefs, to name a few, are able to receive instance (dis)gratification by quickly feeling or testing the solution their working on to see if it's up to snuff.  

However, there's a far larger group of professions that don't have the advantage of instantaneous feedback.  This fraternity includes people like architects, journalists, and...marketers.  I'm obviously in that last classification and this frustration with going forward blindly for days, weeks, and months at a time has been even more recently evident for me as our company markets our first product, HiFi CMS.  

We've worked on marketing plans, made advertising buys, and put strategic initiatives into motion, but there's really no way to know if these things will ultimately be successes or failures until they've had a time to run their course.  Marketers aren't able to add a piece of code to the app, test it, get a bug report, attempt a fix, and repeat.  We add in the line of code and unless it blows up the whole damn machine, there's no way to know its success or failure for a bit of time.

However, even with the inability to feel mistakes as you go, marketers do have certain tools in their tool chest to feel around mistakes, trying not to fall victim to them.  Here are a few tactics our team has tried lately to get an inkling of where an imperfection might pop up and attempt to circumnavigate it.

  1. Always be testing.  While you can't upfront run a test to see if a certain program will be a failure or not, in absolute terms, you can be continually testing along the way to look for relevant successes and optimize for that.  As an example, you may not be able to answer if it's worth spending a lot of resources to make a kickass product screencast video.  That's a hard question to answer, you can A/B test your site layout to optimize placing that video wherever it'll get the most views, thus making the most of your either prophetic or idiotic investment.  (Note: we *love* Optimizely for A/B testing.)
  2. Watch competitors.  One of the best ways to avoid mistakes is to observe what your established competitors do in the space.  If they all send out weekly email newsletters, then it probably makes sense for you to do the same.  Your competitors have been doing this for awhile and certainly made plenty of mistakes in the past -- you have to assume they learned from them and  they're doing certain things and ignoring others for a reason.  That's not to say you should always 100% emulate your competitors, they may miss or ignore some things you know are great strategies (blogging is a popular one), but you should use them as a baseline for your activities and avoidances.
  3. Get feedback at every step. Similar to always testing, you should also always prod users, prospects, friends, and others for feedback.  Thoughts from a small minority should never 100% shape your direction and will never tell you if you're going to fail or not, but it will give you some solid foundations from which to tweak messaging, change an ad buy, or launch new initiatives.  By getting feedback, you'll get others to buy in and get a timely response if you ever do make a truly ghastly decision or gamble.

Those three are just a start of things to do and still don't solve the biggest issue, which is that all could be for naught if you've started down the wrong path anyway.  What are some other ways to minimize room for error as a marketer or another professional who can't feel mistakes as they're going?