Why Marketers Have the Fear of Failure (and How To Overcome It)

Mark Huber

Marketers aren’t experimenting enough.

I’ve seen it as a B2B marketer and research confirms it.

Too many companies underuse marketing experimentation even though it’s the most effective way to maximize campaign results, generate new ideas and prove marketing ROI.

At Metadata, we think of experimentation as putting out combinations of new creative and offer types to new and different audiences and channels to discover which have the most positive impact on revenue, brand, or whatever the metric is we’re trying to influence.

Experimentation is necessary because audience behaviors change all the time.

Whether you’re improving website conversion or ad performance, you must continually experiment with new messaging and design to understand what works for your evolving audience.

If you never experiment, your company will only be mediocre. Sure, you may get lucky with a few campaigns that resonate, but “luck” is never a good marketing strategy.

The most common experimentation challenges — cough, excuses — are lack of time and resources. These are both legitimate barriers, but both are resolvable with better planning.

Much of the blame for not experimenting enough go, to that most human of emotions: fear of failure.

And this is where company culture holds sway.

Marketers understand that some experiments will fail, but at least they’ll learn something about audience expectations. If the C-suite doesn’t share this point of view, they’ll see experimentation as a waste of time and budget.

The experimentation engine breaks down quickly in this type of culture. And so does innovation.

The danger of company cultures that don’t support experimentation

Put simply, innovative companies embrace experimentation.

Google runs thousands of tests and experiments per year. Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Expedia, and even companies without digital roots such as FedEx and State Farm credit experimentation for maintaining successful products.

In my experience, the “fear of failure” mindset is more common at bigger, bureaucratic companies that tend to be adverse to change.

I know, I know. All the companies I just mentioned are BIG, but I consider them outliers regarding experimentation.

When an intimidating company culture doesn’t support experimentation, it’s human nature for marketers to play it safe.

They become afraid to experiment or ask for more budget. They run once-successful campaigns repeatedly and then see ad fatigue set in.

Goals are based on activity, not performance. Vanity metrics, not revenue.

You end up with a complacent marketing team cranking out weak leads that’ll inevitably create a rift between marketing and sales.

Trust me. Once marketing gets a reputation for repeating itself, it does not get taken seriously. None of this sounds like fun, right?

Well, take comfort knowing there are still many companies that weave experimentation into the fabric of their culture.

And they share the following characteristics:

  • They value marketing in general – The size of the marketing team is relative to the overall company size. If there are 200 employees and only a five-person marketing team, that’s a red flag. When a company invests in the appropriate amount of marketing staff, it’s usually open to letting marketing experiment and try new ideas.

  • They celebrate failures as huge learning opportunities – If the company supports experimentation and is ok with failure as a way to learn, they tend to be unambiguously upfront about it.

  • Trust, relationships and communication across the company are strong – As a general rule, when people trust each other and communicate clearly, that’s a good sign they support experimentation.

Get over the fear of failure with an experimentation strategy

If you’re fortunate enough to be at a company that supports robust experimentation, you need to maximize the opportunity.

One way of reducing your fear of failure while maximizing the opportunity is to actually have a strategy and plan for experimentation.

At Metadata, we’ve been using a framework inside an Airtable base for prioritizing experiments and measuring results.

In a follow-up post, I’ll publish our experimentation framework and explain it in more detail. But for now, here are the main features:

  • It starts with the budget – Figure out how much discretionary marketing budget you have for experimentation.

  • Collect ideas internally – Anyone at the company should be able to contribute an experimentation idea.

  • Each idea gets data points – What metric will it impact? How long will it take to build? What’s a revenue estimate for the idea?

  • Each idea gets a status – To keep the workflow organized, add statuses for experiments such as building, running, awaiting results, etc.

  • Assign each experiment to an owner – A specific person runs the experiment for a set period and returns with data.

  • Assign a next step to the experiment – Promote it to evergreen status or toss it out because it didn’t meet the initial criteria.

Your first experimentation framework can be simpler than this. Track the most critical inputs such as “impact” and “effort” and add data points as the framework grows.

If your company views experimentation — and failure! — as opportunities to learn rather than costly mistakes, be thankful. But also, get to work!

A framework like ours is a good start. It’ll help you follow through on the company’s faith in marketing to understand audience expectations and help build better products.

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