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Using the 'Test and Learn' Approach

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Digital Marketing - Study Notes:

Embracing change

In this topic, you will learn how agile is applied to marketing, in a broad sense, and how we must adapt to this new environment of constant change and uncertainty. We will also explore how this lack of stability is in fact a series of valuable opportunities.

Change and uncertainty are feared by most humans, indeed most animals. Uncertainty is the realm of the unknown, and we often perceive this as a risk to our safety and our lives. It triggers our ‘fight or flight’ response, which in turn increases our stress levels. So we humans tend to fear change and avoid it whenever possible.

However, the problem is that we now live in a world where the only constant is change! Not only can we not avoid change, we need to embrace it. Nowhere is this change more obvious than in the world of digital marketing. To succeed in this sector, you have to become comfortable with handling constant change.

Today’s digital landscape is moving faster than ever before, in fact faster than anyone can keep up with. This is explained in Eddie Obeng’s famous 2012 TED talk. He highlights the fact that everything in business today is to some extent new, and so there are no experts who can reliably predict anything anymore. Uncertainty is now the norm.

It is this set of conditions which leaves us in a world in which we must embrace constant change and live with uncertainty. And with uncertainty comes failure. Silicon Valley has recently completely changed it attitude to failure. In fact, the edict that we must ‘fail fast, fail often’ is plastered on the office walls of the tech giants such as Facebook and Google.

This ethos was popularized in the now-famous 2013 book of the same name by Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz of Stanford University, who teach a course on the subject there. The idea is that fear of failure holds people back. Put simply, in order to cope with change, people must be willing to make mistakes and learn from them. Failure becomes a learning process and an opportunity for improvement.

But, let’s face it! Failure is very hard to acknowledge. We don’t like admitting it to ourselves, to those whom we report to, and even to those whom we manage. It’s not easy to stand in front of your team and declare, “We are going to try something new, and I honestly have no idea what’s going to happen.” But that willingness to ‘try something new’ is exactly the sort of courage you need to succeed in today’s digital landscape. Think about it. Whatever your next digital campaign is, you are going to be, to some extent, unsure about what will happen. This is because digital marketing is susceptible to countless factors that traditional advertising never was. Digital technology is changing all the time and we have to change with it.

The Agile Alliance stresses the fact that this change is actually a potential opportunity for success. Rather than being avoided, change should be eagerly grasped. Sure, you might make mistakes along the way, but at least you’ll learn something from the experience. Don’t spend days weeping about your failures. Find out as quickly as possible why you failed, and then learn from that and move on.

Applying 'test and learn'

In software companies, as mentioned previously, this approach is often called ‘fail fast, fail often’. In digital marketing, this often gets referred to as a ‘test and learn’ approach. First, we test. We try something new that we think will work. And then we learn. We use the data fed back to us by our CRM, web, and social platforms in a real-time and constant fashion to adapt our campaign message or creative assets on the fly to respond to this feedback. The key phrase here is ‘on the fly’. Being agile means responding to new data as soon as you receive it.

Where this is happening at the greatest scale currently is in social media advertising. A digital marketer such as myself no longer has to be tied to one or a small number of creative routes, targeting one desired audience and hoping for the best.

We can deploy hundreds and even thousands of variants of the same campaign. They can be messaged in all the subtly different ways our marketing team can imagine, with every variation mixed with every other variation to create an exponential number of different creatives. Each one will resonate with human minds and emotions in very slightly different ways. And then this resonance will again be different for each segment of an audience or population as it interacts with their unique psychographic make-up.

Effective marketing actually involves a mass, population-wide experiment. It relies on real-time data which we now have access to through easy-to-use dashboards in advertising products such as Facebook Ads, LinkedIn Ads, and so on. As soon as the first cents are being spent, we can make decisions on what’s working, for whom, and what conversions or results are being driven.

Note how agile this approach is. The data arrives in real time. It presents an immediate snapshot of an evolving situation. And with effective dashboards, you can interpret this data as quickly as possible. You always know what’s happening, and you can respond as necessary.

This ‘test and learn’ approach obviously results in a higher return on investment for marketers. However, over time, it also improves marketers’ instincts for good creative and how their audience respond to various messages and propositions. If their instincts were wrong the first time, their instincts will be better the next time. Failure has become a learning experience again!

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Will Francis

Will Francis is a recognised authority in digital and social media, who has worked with some of the world’s most loved brands. He is the host and technical producer of the DMI podcast, Ahead of the Game and a lecturer and subject matter expert with the DMI. He appears in the media and at conferences whilst offering his own expert-led digital marketing courses where he shares his experience gained working within a social network, a global ad agency, and more recently his own digital agency.

Connect with him on Twitter (X) or LinkedIn.

The following pieces of content from the Digital Marketing Institute's Membership Library have been chosen to offer additional material that you might find interesting or insightful.

You can find more information and content like this on the Digital Marketing Institute's Membership Library

You will not be assessed on this content.


    Project Planning
    Will Francis
    Skills Expert

    The ability to plan projects and tasks effectively – and to quickly take action when things go wrong – is an essential skill in today’s fast-moving workplace. It can help you to meet your goals, and can result in you exceeding your boss’s expectations and standing out among your peers.

    In this module, you will learn about the fundamentals of project management. You will find out what the role of project manager involves – and the benefits that project management can bring to an organization. You will also be introduced to a seven-step framework for managing projects that you can apply as needed in your own company.

    You will also be introduced to the principles of agile thinking. Being agile means being flexible and quick to adapt to change. You will learn how agile concepts, such as the ‘test and learn’ approach, can be applied to marketing. And you will discover the benefits that agile thinking can bring, from increased efficiency to a higher return on investment.