Metrics Don’t Replace Marketing Judgment

The mailbox has been full of notes from statisticians and scientists weighing in on the right uses of various statistical measures for Web metrics. As a nonstatistician, I can’t offer much to that debate and am choosing to assume that most of our regular readers are as unfamiliar with the finer points of statistical analysis as I am. So, I’ll wrap up that thread with my thanks to the folks who are addressing these tough questions, and jump back to steadier ground for the less technically oriented marketers among us.

Other (nonstatistical) useful feedback included a note from Jay Rudman of OpinionLab. He wrote:

    OnlineOpinion user feedback technique captures page-specific quantitative feedback to identify trouble areas on a Web site, but the open-ended responses we capture by the thousands via our Comment Card allow users to tell Web sites how to present the “right” solution.

    It’s amazing what users will tell you, if only empowered to do so.

Regular readers know that I am a strong proponent of gathering customer input at every opportunity; listening to customers has to be job one of any marketer who hopes to succeed in our increasingly customer-centric, buyer-empowered world. This is even more true online than in most traditional venues; the casual interactions between seller and customer are not (yet) natural online, so actively seeking customer input becomes essential.

That said, I nevertheless cannot agree with the increasingly common viewpoint that customer input and good metrics will negate the need for marketers to use good judgment in interpreting and acting on that input.

Metrics are useful. Client comments are useful. Both — quantitative and qualitative data — help us make better-informed decisions. But neither can make the decisions for us. At the end of the day, customers rarely know exactly what they want (though we as consumers are very clear on what we don’t want) and are even less likely to know how to arrive at what they want.

It is a rare consumer who will invest even a tiny fraction of the attention to your Web site, technology, or product offering that you do. The observant consumer will be well aware of what does not seem right, but the more common consumer goes away without ever stopping to consider that a different shopping engine may have made the procedure more inviting. Do you stop to analyze a store’s floor plan every time you walk out without making a purchase? Of course not, your focus is elsewhere, as it should be.

Even if you are like me and find yourself thinking about how your customer experiences might have been improved (some of us find it hard to turn off the marketer/merchandiser/salesperson brain), we have to admit that we are not privy to all the business issues and unseen considerations that shaped the final experience. Sure, lower prices, free shipping, free same-day delivery, and the like would be nice for the consumer, but it’s often not a viable business option.

(Though I’m sad to have learned of the demise of Webvan this week, it’s no surprise that the level of service offered at the price charged was not sustainable. As a consumer, I am saddened; as a marketer, I saw it coming long ago.)

So, I stick to my conviction that customer and prospect input are important and that metrics are important. Knowing what your customers want and how they want to be interacted with is the cornerstone of good marketing practice. How you deliver on those wants — to keep customers satisfied while keeping the business solvent, healthy, and growing — is the heart of good business decision-making, on- or offline.

Knowing how to understand customer requests and measure their behavior, and then converting those into sound business decisions, is still the magic formula, and it is the reason I don’t soon foresee a day when metrics will replace the human contribution to business decision-making. Sure, there may be an artificial-intelligence-like future in which the human element is no longer needed, but I’m not losing sleep over it tonight.

Next week, I’m back to looking at how customer analytics can inform good marketing decisions.

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