August 16, 2007

Online Marketers And Predicting The Future

These days, I make a living by using Multichannel Forensics to predict the future.

In essence, I present five or six versions of "the future" to a business leader. The business leader picks the version that meets or exceeds the expectations of her board of directors, or her ownership team. With luck, the leadership team executes to that scenario, and will experience success over the next three to five years.

The feedback I receive from business leaders is usually positive. Increasingly, leaders tell me they like the strategic debate about "the future" a lot more than rehashing "what worked and what didn't work" in recent marketing campaigns.

So when Jim brings up a parallel topic about "prediction" in online marketing, I stop and think ... What is it about predicting the future that holds back our new generation of bright, talented online marketing experts?

There are fundamental truths about predicting the future.
  • We are guaranteed to be wrong all of the time.
  • Our prediction is likely to be more accurate if we incorporate historical results into our prediction.
  • Our prediction is likely to be more accurate if we use better tools, better math, to make the prediction.
  • Our prediction is likely to be more accurate if we have enough business experience to have "seen everything" before, allowing us to blend numbers/facts with gut instinct, vision, and competitive intelligence.
  • Our prediction is likely to be perceived as being more likely to be accurate if we state it with confidence.
  • Our prediction is likely to be perceived as being more likely to be accurate if we've been reasonably accurate in the past.
When I visit companies or talk with business leaders on the phone, I note that the catalog marketing, retail marketing or finance folks are more likely than the online marketing folks to build "budgets". "Budgets" are essentially the prediction for what will happen next year.

Maybe this makes sense. Catalog, retail or finance individuals tend to have more experience, tend to have more history to fall back upon, tend to have "seen everything" already.

Online marketers tend to have better tools, in my opinion.

Read any blog or trade journal about web analytics, e-mail marketing, or search engine marketing, and you won't see a lot of talk about "prediction". You'll see a lot of talk about "optimization". You'll see a lot of talk about "targeting". You'll see a lot of talk about "operations". You'll see a lot of talk about metrics, "KPIs" as they are popularly called these days.

This is my opinion, so I invite you to disagree with me in the comments section of this post. I perceive that the online marketing folks have spent a decade building an infrastructure for this new marketing thing called "the internet". Spend all your time focusing on executing campaigns and developing measurement techniques for said campaigns, and you get really good at those things!

As leaders, it is our job to mentor today's brilliant online marketing managers and directors, because these folks will be the CEOs and EVPs of the direct marketing ecosystem in the not-so-distant future.

Conversely, if you're a catalog expert looking for a niche in a world increasingly dominated by online marketing, spend your time becoming great at predicting the future of direct marketing --- be it the future of tools, techniques, or best of all, the future sales of the brands we support. Today's CEOs are looking for this type of leadership, and are not getting enough of it from the current generation of marketing experts.