Some thoughts on the 80-20 rule, aka the Pareto Principle

The Pareto Principle is the idea that small causes often make outsized effects. It’s sometimes called the 80-20 rule, because the numbers often (but not always) work out that way. For example, 80 percent of the traffic is on 20 percent of the roads, or 80 percent of a company’s revenues come from 20 percent of their products, or 80 percent of a company’s productivity is from 20 percent of the employees.

This principle can help companies to optimize their business. For example, if 80 percent of product defects come from 20 percent of the manufacturing errors, then if you can eliminate that 20 percent you have dramatically improved quality.

On the other side of the equation, if 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the employees, why not fire the less-productive 80 percent and try to get more of those 20 percent types?

Jack Welch famously did something like this at GE. Each year he fired the bottom 10 percent of his managers, and required them to do the same with their workers.

Conceptually, you could dramatically improve the performance of your organization if you did this on a continuing basis — always keeping those top performers and getting rid of the stinkers. I’m sure it would work, but I wonder if there’s a limit.

There’s something about this 80-20 optimization concept that nags at me. Some of the books and articles I’ve read on 80-20 act as if it’s some kind of law of the universe. As if 80-20 is right up there with gravity and quantum physics. So, if the ratio is so universal, so built into the nature of things … does it fight back?

Here’s what I mean. If you get rid of the low performers and continually hire more high performers, does the 80-20 rule come and re-assert itself, causing some of the former high performers to become low performers? Is it possible that the super-effective 20 percent somehow need the less effective 80 percent?

Or think of it this way, in the context of the roads example — that is, 80 percent of the traffic is on 20 percent of the roads. So what if some too-clever-by-half social engineer decided to get rid of the 80 percent of the roads that weren’t “performing” as well? No neighborhood streets, for example, or back roads. Obviously that would be ridiculous.

Imagine that a publisher decided to eliminate 80 percent of his titles, and focus all his attention on the 20 percent that made the majority of his revenue. Would that work?

It certainly does to some extent. That’s how a lot of big box retailers make their living. They only carry the big sellers.

Still, I suspect it can be a mixed bag. In some cases you might be hurting yourself — by, for example, eliminating the long tail of titles that give people a favorable impression of your brand.

Another way to cast a skeptical eye at 80-20 is in the context of investing. Let’s say 20 percent of your investments make 80 percent of your revenue, so … gee, why not put all your money in that 20 percent?

Because that’s either a quick ticket to lots of wealth, … or poverty. It’s not a prudent investment strategy.

The 80-20 concept promises great opportunities for optimization, but you also need to apply a little common sense and not expect it to work magic.

Tech and Creative People Working Together?

[These are speaking notes from a SIPA conference in San Francisco. They’re a little cryptic. I’ve tried to expand a little for context, etc., but if you need clarification on something, please ask.]

When you talk about creative people and technical people, it’s not just marketing and IT, but fulfillment, accounting, business development, sales, production …

I’m going to address why these groups need to work together, how to do it, and what’s going to happen if the industry doesn’t learn this lesson.

Why creative and technical people have to work together

Very simply, there’s a right and a wrong way to do things.

There are good and bad offers, web design, seo, server management, programming, project management, content creation, and yes, marketing.

Anecdote: Story of bad emails I get all the time (can we “jump on a call” and waste my time) vs an email that addresses a problem I have and offers a solution (e.g., I noticed that you use WordPress and your site loads slow, I can help with that).

Forrester Research reported that fixing an IT issue post launch is 30 times more expensive that fixing it during the design phase. (Gerry McGovern article on LinkedIn)

In the modern working environment, jobs aren’t precisely divided up. Everyone is doing everything, but some people specialize. Which is why we have to work together across functional teams.

Some people are creative, some are technical, and some are both. These things can’t necessarily be trained. Sometimes it’s just the way people are.

Anecdote: IT: We don’t have renewals, but we do have automatic billing
Marketing: On a new 1-year order, set the bill to be issued after 9 months.

Anecdote: Sales guy: design us a prototype.
Tech: what technologies can we use?
Sales guy: it doesn’t matter, use what you want, we just want to see what you’re capable of.

“Technical” doesn’t just mean coding. Marketing has its technical requirements too, like reports. You need to establish tracking and reporting requirements early with the tech guys or they might have to rewrite their whole system later.

Tech doesn’t always mean computers. Your A-B test might be messed up by other technologies — different colors on different devices, printers, etc.

Anecdote: Story about stock codes and mailing house desire to be flexible with inside or outside equipment. We lose the ability to track what went wrong.

The lesson is to bring in the people who know the details, and do it early.

Understand the conflict between systems (templates) and infinite flexibility. Make sure you understand the programmers’ desire to systematize with templates and when that won’t work.

Example: Email signatures in Alerts (with Twitter or without). Product pages that assume every product will have a sample issue. You have to understand how templates work to avoid creating problems later.

Example 2: Content templates for online learning — make them specific enough that they become a form to fill out.

Bring in finance in up front as well to make sure your business model and payment plans will work.

Anything can be done, but there’s a cost.

Low tech workarounds can seem like a good idea but they eat up staff time, and accumulate. Once they accumulate you have a rube Goldberg mess.

A project might look simple to the editors and marketers and cause the IT folks fits, and vice versa. Get everybody involved and use spiral development to avoid this. Start with the big picture and work down into details.

But … explore several different options at the same time because some niggling little detail can totally derail your project — e.g., an email system that can’t attach PDFs or an e-commerce system that can’t do recurring payments.

How creative and technical people can work together

Learn what you can, but stick to your role. Don’t tell the technologist how to do things, and vice versa. Respect other people’s expertise.

Example: VP v my programmer re login information and security.

People do what they want to do. Get to know what assets you have, what they like to do, what they’re good at, and deploy those assets appropriately.

Get the operational people in the room when you discuss something. Supervisors and salesman often don’t know what can really be done and how things work.

For large projects

Get on a train …

One person has to take the point and do the initial research on the project. The idea is to understand the breadth of the issue and all the systems and departments that may be affected.

For meetings, let people know what you’re going to discuss ahead of time and let them sleep on it. Require them to interact with the agenda before the meeting. Nobody should come to the meeting expecting to wing it.

Anecdote: Yes vs. No programmers. The cigarette break.

Make sure the people actually doing the work are the ones creating the estimates.

Bring the technical people in early so the whole team spirals their way from the overall concept to the specific requirements.

Back and forth is inevitable, embrace it. Don’t think you’re going to write a perfect, static requirements document.

Requirements change – during development and afterwards.

Example: Programmer’s issues with ad sales and changing requirements. If you don’t build in flexibility up front you’ll be redesigning a lot.

For requirements docs, it’s very different whether working with inside people (involve them early and let requirements develop) or contractors for a specific task or new vendors. Also big vs. small projects.

Write complete sentences in your requirements document in addition to bullet points to make sure you get your point across. Choppy, abbreviated language can lead to misunderstandings.

Agree on testing upfront. Who does it, when, and how it affects the schedule.

In a big project, establish small goals and deliverables. Don’t let a developer go on for a month without some review / status update / demonstration.

Sometimes it’s best to bypass your own tech people.

Example: WordPress for Kiplinger Alerts.

Just because it can be done technically doesn’t mean it should be done in your organization.

Example: segmentation.

If your tech team has sales people, make sure their incentives aren’t getting in your way.

Example Preferring ad sales over collecting an email address.

Good enough really is good enough.

Perfect is the enemy of done, but you don’t want to send out crap.

The bottom line is to try to understand and respect one another, and never trust somebody who isn’t actually doing the work.

The Looming Threat that will leave us all flipping burgers

The old strategy that most of us grew up on was acquiring the customer and monetizing that relationship. Cf. book of models

Under most of those models “reach” has value. You want to get the word out broadly.

But we know that’s not exactly true. Reach is only cost-effective when you have well-qualified people. But if reach is free to you ….

This is how Facebook is tricking publishers. They promise us reach so they can get data. It’s a bad bargain.

1. It devalues our content and perpetuates the idea that content should be free.

2. We put our content in the same context as cat videos and hashtag activism.

3. They’re using us to build their business.

Reach is only valuable if you’re still acquiring the customer. But if customers think they can get everything they need in their Facebook feed, they won’t have any reason to come to us.

Apple tried this with the newsstand and the iPad. Foolish publishers fell for it, but fortunately (and predictably IMO) that failed.

Facebook is doing it right. They’re going after data and aren’t forcing anybody to use certain hardware.

Don’t fall for the trick.

Computers seem to promise centralization — we’re bringing everybody together in one place, so they don’t have to use multiple devices, diff. accounts, etc. But the reality is often the opposite. Platforms are not interested in helping you have all the data you want. The platform’s first concern isn’t helping the customer, but acquiring the customer.

The high-minded promise of the platform is that people will have one place to go to get everything, but it’s not true.

Example: Magazine subscription

My two prescriptions.

1. Leave Facebook to cat videos. Starve it of serious content.

2. Get publishers to cooperate to create a true platform that addresses the needs of the publisher and the customer — not Zuckerberg.

3 main takeaways

  • Respect other people’s expertise and allow them to have a voice at the table.
  • Make procedures that require people to think about an issue before they discuss it.
  • Consider the possibility that somebody else is eating your lunch because they’re working at tomorrow’s business model and you’re looking at yesterday’s business model.


If you’re not familiar with SIPA, you should be. If you’re interested in practical advice on how to prosper in your publishing business, meet me at their next major event: BIMS 2016. I promise you’ll learn at least one thing that will make the trip worthwhile.

Publishing lessons from fishing on the beach

I was on vacation last week down at the beach. While I was watching the sun rise over the Atlantic, putting the same bait on the same hook, casting it into the same ocean in roughly the same place, I thought about that saying you hear from time to time that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

People who say that need to go fishing.

Was I, in fact, doing the same thing over and over? Each piece of shrimp was slightly different than the last. Each time I cast my line the sun was a little higher in the sky, the tide had come a little higher up the beach and the current had moved everything a little farther south. The fish had moved around too. And sometimes, mysteriously, they just start biting for their own reasons.

It’s virtually impossible to do the same thing twice when you’re fishing.

Heraclitus was one of those old Greek philosophers. He said change is the fundamental nature of the universe, and one of his famous sayings is that you can never step into the same river twice.

He appears to have been somewhat of a grump and said some other strange things, but … his basic point is valid. The landscape is always changing.

This is just as true with your market as it is for the fish on the shore. Tastes and preferences are changing all the time. What worked last year might not work this year. You have to stay creative and try new things. But at the same time, something that didn’t work last year might work now.

You have to be willing to fail, and to not take your failures too seriously.

I can recall many promising new project proposals that were killed because they reminded the boss of something that had failed a decade ago.

“Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results,” the boss might say.

Okay, obviously there’s some wisdom in that saying, but as with all proverbs the hard part is understanding how and when to apply it. Your new effort might not actually be the same thing, and it’s not going to the same market in the same world. People are different now.

Many years ago I was involved in developing an online tax service that failed because it was too early. People were scared to death of putting their financial information on this new and weird thing called the internet. Now everybody does it without thinking twice.

So if everything’s changing, and the things you learned last year might not apply this year, what do you do?

Two things.

First, you need to be testing things all the time. The tests need to get results quickly, and you need to give less weight to tests you did a while ago. Fashions and opinions and tastes are always changing.

Second, you need to have a sense for the changing landscape. Or you need to hire someone who does.

You know those people who are always in style, always know the latest lingo and how to use the latest slang? Some people just have a knack for understanding the popular mind. The will of the people. What the cool kids are up to.

Those people are very valuable — if you’re marketing to the cool kids. Of course you have to be careful with that. Your plugged in millennial might have exactly the wrong sense if you’re marketing to 60 year olds.

The real point is, know your market. Know the words and fears and hopes that resonate. And they might not be the same today as they were last month.

And don’t let anybody kill a project because of something that didn’t work ten years ago. Let go of your failures. The world is a different place now.

Ad blocker rage is the chickens coming home to roost

Congratulations, publishers. We’ve trained the unwashed masses on the Internet quite well. They are convinced that it’s their God-given, constitutional right to get free access to all the analysis and reporting we produce at great expense. A growing number of people are offended at the idea that publishers should be compensated for their work.

Sensible people realize that the ads they see in a magazine or on a web page pay for the content. Putting up with those ads is the price the reader pays for getting free stuff online.

But the world is not populated by sensible people. The way they see it, it’s natural and ordinary and right for the information to be free, and publishers are money-grubbing bastards for littering the public’s online safe spaces with crude things like advertising.

Well … what did you expect? This is one more consequence of the awful, bad, horrible decision publishers made when they chose to put their valuable work online “for free” — that is, ad supported.

Someone is going to say, “But Krehbiel, you’re writing all this stuff for free.”

Yes, and that’s precisely the point. There should be a distinction between the free stuff — some guy like me jawing about whatever — and real journalism, real research. real data, real analysis.

When you publish your work for free you’re telling the world that it’s no better than a blog.

Recently I have been on the receiving end of some terribly nasty complaints by readers about the paywall policy where I work. We’ve set a strict standard. Paying subscribers can use an ad blocker, others can’t. If they go elsewhere, that’s okay with us because we’re not getting any revenue from them anyway.

That policy is a step in the right direction, but you wouldn’t believe the rage it generates from the snowflakes who think they have a right to read for free all the material we pay a lot of money to produce. It’s pretty amazing.

Publishers are now in the awkward situation of trying to put the genie back in the bottle — or, perhaps, taking the candy back from the baby — and trying to re-establish the idea that quality content isn’t free.

Just in time postal delivery?

I’ve been investigating electronic paper recently. It looks like a very interesting technology that will have lots of helpful applications. Imagine, for example, a piece of fabric sewn into the bag you carry to work every day with a constantly updated train schedule.

I was hoping it would be a good option for Kiplinger Letter subscribers. Our people love to read in print, and only a small percentage take advantage of the digital option — despite the fact that digital readers get the letter a few days earlier.

Maybe electronic paper can bridge that gap, I thought, since electronic paper is a little more like reading on paper. I can envision a situation where we simply deliver the latest edition straight to a piece of electronic paper sitting on the subcriber’s coffee table or desk. It would have some of the haptic benefits of print, but it could be updated digitally.

Alas, it’s too expensive for now.

In the meanwhile, it seems there should be better options for getting good, old-fashioned paper to people a lot faster. After all, Amazon can deliver things more complicated than a newsletter, and often they can deliver it on the same day.

Why can’t every post office — or maybe even every postal delivery truck — have a printer, and insert mail directly into the letter carrier’s bag? It should be possible to have same-day delivery of something as simple as a four-page newsletter.

No doubt there’d have to be some standardization, since these printers wouldn’t be able to offer many options. The publisher may have to limit himself to 8.5 x 11 white paper in #10 envelopes, for example.

(We print on cream-colored 11×17 paper, folded to make a 4-page letter and stuffed in a cream-colored envelope with our logo.)

Adopting standardized format seems like a small compromise to get same-day delivery.

So … why hasn’t this happened? Here are some ideas.

1. To offer it nationwide, they’d have to have this equipment — and somebody to man it — at every post office, and some post offices are little places out in the boondocks. They might not get much use out there, so it might not be cost-effective.

Okay, but why is that a problem? If you can get same-day delivery at most post offices — or even just some — and regular delivery in other areas, what’s wrong with that?

2. Most mail isn’t as time-sensitive as a subscription publication, so there wouldn’t be a lot of demand.

That, I think is the main problem with the concept. How many people need same-day delivery of a printed piece of paper? For most of us, if we need something immediately we just email it.

So … while this would be a great thing for some very niche publications, I don’t think it has broad appeal. Which is too bad.

What can you learn from Pokemon Go?

Whenever a new technology or tech-related service comes out, you can hold your breath for the amount of time before you see an article explaining how marketers should use it, or how this is a great new opportunity for your business. Usually such articles are rather silly.

Fortunately, sometimes there are also some sensible articles. Like this one: No, publishers can’t learn anything from Pokémon Go

[Pokemon Go is an] augmented reality game based on a decades-old video game franchise, propelled to ridiculous early success on a wave of ’90s nostalgia by people of my own age who grew up with Pokémon and now have the disposable income to buy smartphones? Good luck replicating that situation, publishers.

Right. It’s not that they caught a wave you can ride as well. They caught a laser beam.

But also, and more importantly, just because people are spending a lot of time on something does not mean that it’s an opportunity to get some of that attention. That is a very common error.

“Everybody’s on X, so you should be on X.”

No, not really. Not unless it fits with your market.

I haven’t played the game, but I know some people who do, and when they’re out looking for Pokemon they’re not in the mood to purchase a magazine subscription. Or … whatever you’re selling — unless that’s Pokemon t-shirts.

Think of it in terms of list selection. If you want to send out a million pieces of mail, you want to find lists of people who are like your people. You may want readers in a certain demographic group who have recently shown interest in a publication like yours.

The same thing applies to time. Just because everybody’s on Facebook doesn’t mean they want to buy your thing while they’re there.

You should apply the same sort of critical thinking to these social media and technology services that you apply to lists. Don’t chase the crowd just because it’s a crowd. Find the right people in the right place in a buying mood.

A “digital magazine” is not a magazine. Let’s stop pretending and get on with it.

Imagine going back to visit your high school, walking into the cafeteria and seeing all your old friends, sitting at your old table, still arguing about the same things they were arguing about so many decades ago.

That’s the way I feel about “digital magazines.” Can we please get over it already!

Magazines have been around for a long time, so the word “magazine” has accumulated a lot of meanings that go beyond a reductionist analysis of its “content.” Here are a few.

  • You might put it in a magazine rack next to your couch.
  • You’ll find lots of them at the barber shop.
  • You might think that a particular magazine, on your coffee table, fits with your style and self image.
  • When you pick up a magazine, lots of annoying little cards come falling out.
  • You can get some sense of the quality, distribution and worth of the thing just by holding and touching it.
  • It’s a nice thing to pick up before you board an airplane.
  • It’s easy to pick the magazine you want at the newsstand because you can quickly scan through it by flipping the pages.
  • If you see somebody turning it sideways with a fold out, you have a good idea what kind of a magazine it is.

All those things (and many more) are part of what we mean by the word “magazine,” and none of those things apply to a “digital magazine” in the same way.

A magazine comes in issues with a relatively small number of articles. A digital product has no such limitations. There’s no reason why it has to have issues, and there’s no reason why it should or shouldn’t have one, 15, 100 or 1,000 articles.

A magazine has still photos. A digital product can have video, audio, moving graphics, etc.

A magazine has a discrete, defined size. A digital product may be viewed on a computer, a tablet, a smart phone — maybe even a watch.

A magazine is static. With advanced printing options you can customize an issue to specific market segments, and sometimes to individuals, but once it’s published, that’s it. It’s done. A digital product can be changed on the fly, and the ads usually are.

If you see an ad in a magazine, you can go back and find it by flipping through. An ad you saw on a digital product may be gone forever, or it might follow you around the internet like a lost puppy.

The users of a digital product can have a relationship with one another, and with the publisher, that the subscribers of a print publication can’t. They can comment on articles, they can have chats and even real-time discussions. Sooner or later somebody’s going to incorporate Skype.

Users of a digital product are giving the publisher a huge cache of data that the publisher can’t get from print subscribers. E.g., people who read this article also read this other article, or people in this demographic group spend less time on the page than people in this other group.

I could go on and on with differences. So, as a contrast, what do they have in common?

Not a lot. The brand, the articles, and to some extent the ads. That’s about it.

In my opinion, the common elements pale in significance to the differences.

The articles from a magazine can just as well go on a stand-alone web page. In fact, when you hear about “digital revenue” from magazine publishers, that’s what they’re talking about. Not sales of “digital magazines,” which are still (and have always been) in the tank.

It’s time to give up this idea of creating a “digital version” of a magazine and to think of digital products as different things. They’re not “magazines,” they’re something else, and they should be treated as something else.

Print has its benefits and its limitations. So does digital. We need to quit trying to force one into the other. It makes for a worse product in each medium.

Three ways authors can monetize their Facebook feed

Usually I write about professional publishing, but from time to time I take a break and talk about self publishing, which is my hobby.

The question at hand is how an author can use his Facebook feed to his advantage, without trying to sell all his friends and family.

I’m one of those guys who’s uncomfortable selling his friends. I could never do Amway, or any sort of multi-level marketing business. It doesn’t seem right to me. I view friends and family as people I do things for, not people I try to get things from.

I don’t mind asking for a favor, provided I’ve done (or we would be happy to do) the same. That’s because doing favors for one another strengthens friendships, and is part of friendship. But I’m not going to ask my friends to buy something from me unless I know they want or need the thing and I can cut them a really good deal.

And even then … it’s just weird.

Maybe that’s a character flaw that I need to get over, but … that’s the way it is, and if you’ve ever felt the same way, here are some ways I’ve been able to use my Facebook (and other) friends to help me with my writing projects without trying to sell them.

The most obvious way is to get help with an early draft. I simply put the offer out there. E.g., “I’m working on a Merlin story. If anybody would like to read an early draft and give me some comments, that would be great. Just message me.” That usually nets me a few reviewers, who often have valuable insights.

The next obvious way is to tell everybody about free days. I don’t want to sell my friends, but I’m perfectly happy giving them free downloads, so when I do a kindle free day I advertise that to my Facebook feed. This helps to bump my book up in the ratings (on the free side, anyway) and nets me more downloads.

The next one is less obvious, and that’s the real takeaway here.

We all know that Amazon is a fantastic online business. They A-B test their site all the time, and they are constantly tinkering with it to make it a better sales vehicle. I’ve done some testing like that myself, and it’s surprising the kind of effect you can get in response on an online form from a small color change.

Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t extend that courtesy to Kindle authors like me. I have no way to split test a book cover on Amazon. I can try one, then try another, but any decent marketer knows that’s not a fair test.

So I split test my covers with my Facebook friends. I’ll post something like this with the simple question: left or right?

The answer isn’t as valuable as a genuine split test because it’s one thing to prefer a cover, for whatever reason, but it’s another thing to pull out your wallet and pay some money. Still, it’s the best I can do with the resources I have, and people enjoy providing that kind of feedback — perhaps as a relief from cat videos and hashtag activism. And sometimes they have really good design ideas.

This idea doesn’t only apply to covers. Another key component to a successful kindle book (so they tell me) is the description, and, once again, Amazon doesn’t let me do a split test. So I do it on Facebook.

Don’t get me wrong, I am still a novice at selling kindle books. But I’m learning a few things, and as I do I’ll pass them along.

Does “content marketing” actually mean anything?

I recently attended a SIPA conference where three talented, intelligent, experienced publishing professionals gave three fairly different perspectives on “content marketing.”

Each of them had very interesting things to say. One focused on “purposeful content” — that you should have a goal for anything that you write. Another focused on “story,” and how businesses should have a reason for their existence, and the things they write should promote that mission. The last spoke of it in more tactical terms — the kinds of troubles you can get into with advertisers and how to deal with them.

It was all great stuff, but it wasn’t clear to me what held it all together. I asked whether the phrase “content marketing” is so broad as to be somewhat useless.

The word “content” itself is a pretty amorphous term. Publishers are involved in so many things today — words on a page, words on a website, data, charts, video, audio, training, etc. — that we often need a catch-all term to describe what we do, and “content” seems to be the best bet. But, once again, it’s so broad as to be somewhat meaningless, and in some ways it’s misleading.

It’s misleading because publishers really aren’t in the “content” business. We’re in the solutions business. We don’t sell “content,” we sell aspirations and goals. We sell money and sex. We sell power. We sell living a better life when you’re 90. We most definitely do not sell “content” because nobody wants to buy it.

If you don’t believe me, send me a check for $100 and I’ll send you some “content.” Deal?

So the word “content” doesn’t contribute much to the phrase “content marketing.” What about “marketing”?

A loose definition of “marketing” might be “a series of activities to promote and sell products or services.” But in the context of “content marketing,” that goal gets even broader. It includes things you write on your blog to become an opinion leader — to draw people in so that you can sell them later. It includes material that is valuable in its own right, that might lead to sales, like the Jello Cookbook. In short, it includes all those elements of “marketing” that are hard to justify because we can’t calculate the return on investment.

So “content marketing” seems to be the murky intersection of two vague concepts.

I’m not against any of these activities in any way. We should always write with a purpose. A company should have a story to tell about why it exists. We should learn how to deal with advertisers, and we should use all kinds of creative means to brand ourselves and our companies as the place to go for certain information.

That’s all good stuff, but I think it loses some precision when we lump it all under the odd phrase, “content marketing.”

I don’t say that to be pedantic. The point of precision is not to win points in an argument on Facebook. The point is to know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and whether you can measure if you’re doing it well. I don’t think “content marketing” contributes to that kind of analysis because it’s too squishy.

Please let me know if you agree or disagree.

If you appreciate articles like this, you might want to sign up for my once-weekly email. Use the form at the top right to sign up. Otherwise, please tweet, like, share, or comment on the social media platform of your choice. (I’ll post it to LinkedIn tomorrow.) And as an amusing side note, you might enjoy this article. Dear Journalists: For the Love of God, Please Stop Calling Your Writing Content.

A dozen thoughts on marketing automation

I admit I’m a bit of a curmudgeon, so take this with a grain of salt. When someone says “marketing automation,” it usually annoys me.

That’s mostly because people speak of “marketing automation” as if it’s a new concept — as if we’ve only recently been able to configure systems to automate messages or content in response to customer behavior.

But … that’s wrong. We’ve been doing it for decades. Renewal notices and welcome letters are “marketing automation.”

However — taking off my curmudgeon cap for a moment — there is something fundamentally different about marketing automation in the digital age. It’s not a difference in kind. We’ve been able to respond to customer behavior and automate repetitive tasks for a long time. It’s a difference in degree. The types of marketing automation that are available today are truly amazing.

So, for example, It’s not just that we can program systems to reply to customer actions. It’s that we can do it more precisely — in smaller numbers, and with more fine-tuning.

With that introduction, here are a dozen thoughts about marketing automation.

1. Don’t ignore it just because the evangelists are annoying. As with anything tech and marketing related, the hype can be too much. Dial back the enthusiasm if you need to, but look for the part that could actually help your business.

2. Be skeptical of “solutions.” The marketing automation you need is unlikely to be a new platform that you plug into your existing systems and, hey presto, cool things happen. Rather, it will be a series of tools and methods that are always changing.

The problem with a “solution” is that there’s no guarantee it will work with your current configuration. If you buy some comprehensive solution it’s very likely you’ll either get less than you paid for or you’ll kill yourself trying to hook up all the bells and whistles.

3. It comes down to integration. The essence of modern marketing automation is Instant connectivity and the ability to respond based on customer data. That means you have to connect the data to the logic, the task and the message.

As with most of these gee whiz marketing technologies, the devil is in the details. The “system” might have all sorts of capacities, but it needs your data and your business rules. To put this in practical terms, it doesn’t help you if the marketing automation system can send an immediate message upon purchase if it can’t access the purchasing system in real time.

If you can hook up all your systems to a comprehensive solution, that’s great. Just be very sure it will actually work.

4. There’s still a lot of work to be done. Sending customized messages based on consumer action is a great thing, but somebody has to write the templates from which all those customized messages will be created, somebody has to create all the appropriate rules, and somebody has to test it. Nothing’s easy.

5. There’s a strong probability of major screw-ups. Think of the last time you got an inappropriately worded customer service note from a company. That was an automated system. Either some rep pulled up “Template A” when Template A didn’t apply, or some programmer wrote a rule that didn’t quite work.

Automating such tasks can be a labor saver, but it can also be a customer service nightmare.

6. Think long and hard about how you’re going to test it. You would never send out a renewal notice without reading it carefully, but how are you going to check your “renewal notice” if there are 2,437 different iterations based on customer data? The more customized you make things, the more things there are to check, and the more likely somebody’s going to get a weird message. (“Welcome back, Mail Stop 27.”)

7. You might already have some of the tools you need. Your list broker might be able to model your market for you. Your email system might be able to send automated replies. Your shopping cart might be able to add new customers to your lists. Don’t buy a completely new “solution” before you find out what you can already do.

8. Think about how you’ll measure success. Analytics need to be a part of the discussion from the start. There’s no point in building a new system if you can’t determine if it’s doing what you want it to do.

9. Question whether this will work with social media. A lot of “marketing automation” solutions include a social media component. Is that a good idea?

Social media isn’t really my thing, but the people who claim to be social media mavens say “authenticity” is very important. I’m not sure exactly what the intersection of authenticity and automation looks like, but I imagine it will look silly more often than you’d like.

10. Don’t do it just because you can. There’s an enormous amount of data that’s potentially available to marketers. That doesn’t mean we should always use it. And I’m not only speaking of ROI. At some point, you’re going to creep people out.

Given the right data and the right systems, you can send an email selling your jelly bean maker to somebody who just viewed your web page on jelly beans. But … is that a good strategy?

11. “Analytics” gets awfully scary. I’ve already mentioned the need to measure things, but now you can see just how big a monster you might be dealing with. Measuring whether panel A did better than panel B in an email campaign is easy. Measuring all the effects you’re going to unleash with marketing automation might result is analysis psychosis.

Let’s say you do the jelly bean thing I just mentioned and you get an uptick in sales. Great, right? Sure, but what if that level of intrusion makes people mistrust you and they install ad blockers and delete the cookies from your site? Was it worth it?

Behavior is an incredibly complicated thing and it’s very difficult to evaluate. Getting into the deep waters of marketing automation is almost like becoming a social scientist. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t believe social science.

12. The bottom line. By all means, automate stuff where you can. But be conservative about it.