Be Strategic – Really?


Last week I was invited by Digital Annexe and ISBA to talk at ISBA’s Insight and networking event entitled ‘The Next 5 Years in Digital’.

It was great to see such a strong presence from Asda, Morrison’s and Nestle.

Sean Singleton from DA talked about the 7 habits of digital marketers (borrowed from Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective people).

The habit that stood out for me was ‘Be Strategic’. This seems blindingly obvious but most people don’t think long 7 Habitsterm. Sean argues that marketers are too focussed on driving more traffic to their websites but then fail to engage customers with the correct approaches to increase site conversion.

I think that this short term thinking is a ubiquitous problem in business and goes some way to explain why traditional market research dominates the market place and why the science of decision-making has not had more of an impact on marketing. This is despite compelling evidence from countless psychologists and neuroscientists that clearly demonstrates that the majority of our decision making processes occur below our conscious radar.

To translate the findings of decision sciences into marketing practices takes time. The fact that the average tenure of Chief Marketing Officers is just 45 months and the continual demand for short term results means that people are more worried about keeping their jobs than fixing the long term problems with a bloated over-emphasis of explicit self-report in market research.

I regularly speak to insight professionals who have read Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman or Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. These people even have a passion for decision sciences and understand that there is a key role in non-conscious processing in decision making but constantly come up against barriers when they discuss ideas of change with colleagues. Marketers need to spend time understanding how people make decisions. This is relevant to all categories but isn’t being done on anything like the scale that it should.

As humans we make mistakes and behave in irrational ways, which is reflected in cognitive biases. The reticence of researchers to change their approaches is, in some way, due to confirmation bias. When we make decisions, such as investing hundreds of thousands of pounds on traditional market research, our brains seek out evidence to make us think that we made the right decision. We are essentially blind to evidence that says the decision was wrong. We like it when a decision feels good.

Sean also states that as a key habit, we should create a culture of experimentation. Too true. New approaches need to be experimented with and validated – a process that takes time. Progressive marketers would be well advised to try out behaviourally based approaches that interrogate our non-conscious minds without post rationalisation. This can easily and cost effectively be done on small projects to introduce new thinking.

‘Be strategic’ may be one of the most overused phrases in business. It may well also be one of the most misunderstood.

Duncan Smith