Walking Away From Marketing Pseudoscience

By now the concept of Engagement has burrowed deep into the consciousness of nearly everyone involved with digital marketing. It has gone beyond buzz worthiness and graduated to the status of a topic most people take for granted. Of course you’ll develop an engagement strategy for your Web presence. Of course you will.

Trouble is, the very ubiquity of the concept has led a large swath of the industry to see engagement as a generic, quantifiable thing that you can lock into your site—if only you follow best practices. Hence, we have Information Architects and User Experience Designers everywhere you look, each with his or her proprietary rule book. That the rules in each book are distillations from a patchwork of usability studies should give us no comfort. Here’s why:

Over the last five years, I’ve noticed increasing rigidity about “what works.” If something pops out of a usability study, it’s taken word-for-word as gospel. Try to discuss a flexible application of this decidedly non-scientific data and all you get is a one way ticket to Zipit.com

You can’t even get the words out of your mouth without being interrupted by an incantation worthy of Harry Potter (or rather Hermione Granger):


Now, I have nothing against academic research. But even if I were to concede that a random assortment of people “reacting” to a Web site constituted research—I’d still expect anyone with a true scientific outlook to know that data needs to be interpreted to be meaningful.

And that’s doubly true in a categorically unscientific field like advertising.

I know, the trend is to reassure clients that our methodology is based on concrete entities like data and research and that great results can be engineered as accurately as can a bridge. But how scientific can a process be when it’s subject to the inscrutable whims of anxious clients? Imagine what would have happened to the Brooklyn bridge if John A. Roebling had allowed the Mayor’s Office to say “I’m just not crazy about those load-bearing pillars?”

Engagement model or Chucky doll?
So when it comes to discussing “what works” as an engagement strategy, I can’t get behind prescriptive models. Look at it this way. Assuming you do know a lot about your target audience, you still have to realize that not everyone within that group looks at the world in exactly the same way—and certainly not on different days of the same week.

People are variable. Need proof? Draw on your lifetime research into the problem of getting along with them. Can you seriously tell me that, among the people you know, the same conversational gambits work in every context? By the same token when we talk about “engagement,” we’re talking about a nuanced, specific, time-sensitive and intimate thing. Any other approach kills engagement in the long run, by teaching consumers to expect that a certain percentage of any branded Web site will be formulaic dreck.

Vampire vendors.
Sure, there are rafts of consultants who will tell you—and you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced it — that there are a precise number of characters per headline, a precise set of dimensions for a graphic, a precise color for a background, and on and on, in the hope that you’ll cede not only your creative instincts but also your paycheck to them, right there over the phone.

To that I say, my dear vendor, your job is to listen and offer solutions that meet my creative goals. Your job is not to chide me with “obstacles,” whose only solution is the prophylactic avoidance of human emotion. Especially if the latter involves the use of your patented, proprietary templates.

As useful as it may be to survey a landscape of “findings,” nothing can replace a creative insight that grows out of a well-developed grasp of human nature. If that sounds subjective to you, you’re on the right track. Because…wait for it…engagement is subjective, too. To draw people in, you need the instincts of a street performer, a stand-up comic, or a charismatic preacher, not those of a spreadsheet jockey. Engagement is something that touches a nerve. You can’t quantify it—and that’s its most essential quality.

It’s hard to understand the persistence of pseudoscience in our industry as anything other than a mirror reflection of our clients’ anxiety. As I see it, the sooner we stop pandering to that anxiety, stop advocating mechanical engagement strategies based on suspect data, the better.

By refusing to see real people as phony abstractions, we might come up with something more involving than an online poll or a Web page with nothing on it but a laundry list of rectangular boxes enslaved to the “one click rule.” And that’s just one of the benefits of walking away from marketing pseudoscience. You might even have a fighting chance of enjoying your craft again.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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