In 2018, the journalist Ken Auletta wrote an article for the New Yorker called How the Math Men Overthrew the Mad Men about how advertising is now primarily ruled by code, algorithms and data. Gone are the days where you could bring in a few zany creatives with liberal arts degrees and expect to pop out a successful marketing campaign.
The artists are out, the nerds are in.
Facebook has been around for over 10 years and Google has been with us for about two decades now. And as Auletta points out, Google and Facebook each has a market value exceeding the combined value of the six largest advertising and marketing holding companies. Both of these iconic companies have become seared into our cultural consciousness. And the business world has finally started catching on to the vast power of digital amidst the realization that this is the world we now live in.
The problem with most businesses is that they bring the archaic Mad Men style of Madison Avenue to the new world of digital marketing and advertising. The Mad Men style is this: you lock a bunch of creative people in a room with coffee and donuts and you let them brainstorm advertising ideas. Then they go pound out a campaign.
The Math Men do it differently. They assume that nobody really knows what people want and that you have to see what people do first to deduce what they want. So, the way to figure out what they want is to run hundreds of short campaigns—mini scientific experiments, really—to see how people interact with your content. Unlike focus group testing, you collect actual behavioral data from large numbers of real people interacting with content “out in the wild.” This is called A/B testing and it’s really the only way to achieve success in digital advertising today.
A/B testing is a form of scientific experimentation…tinkering, really. Tinkering is how engineers improve their products. Because the world is so driven by data now, marketers must inject the engineering ethos into their blood. Tinker…tinker…and tinker some more until you find the right solution.
When it comes to marketing and advertising, there’s really only three things that matter. Concept, text and design. The concept is what you want to nail down. The text and design support the concept. To nail down a concept that your audience likes, you have to A/B test different variations of text and design. You have to mix and match. The best digital marketers get down to the level of tinkering with individual words, colors and shapes.
Let’s get practical. Let’s say, for example, that you’re a non-profit organization devoted to eradicating sex trafficking around the world and you want to get your message out. What better way than Facebook? So, you buy a bunch of Facebook ads to promote your cause. How should you go about developing those ads?
The Mad Men way would be to develop them based on hunches. As a member of the Math Men club, you don’t trust hunches…only evidence. But of course, you have to start with something, so you do a bit of research on your target audience, which gives you enough baseline insight to create the first round of ads. You churn out a few variations of a concept where you then manipulate one variable at a time. So, with this first batch, let’s say we want to test what imagery might work best with our audience. We develop, say 2 ads, which have the same copy but different imagery.
We run them and then check which gets the highest click rates and we keep that one and perhaps test it against even more variations. Then we run another set of ads where we use one image but vary the text. And we run the same process. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Sure, this sounds like a lot of work, but it’s the only way to get the real data you need to support your hunches. It’s also very powerful because it gives you a window into your audience’s mind rather than constantly having to guess at what people want.