Is Your Company Failing Enough Times to Succeed?

Sabrina Chamberlain

As marketers, we often carry the impulse to avoid failure, believing a dollar wasted on an unworkable tactic is a dollar on the wrong side of return on investment.

Google, on the other hand, has not only embraced failure, but has also put it to work, especially when considering online marketing tactics. By releasing a quarterly failure report that showcases what the worst companywide failures were and how the company learned from them, it effectively builds a productive and growth-oriented culture around what not to do.

The notion that failure should be avoided at all costs is actually holding marketers back. Failure is a fact of life. And failed tests aren’t efforts to be circumvented but embraced, as they ultimately enable curiosity, development, and growth by allowing a company to take risks, drive deeper thinking, and outmaneuver the competition.

Why a Company Culture Built Around Tested Failure Succeeds

As failure becomes increasingly key for marketing success in today’s dynamic marketplace, the “fail cheap, fail quickly, fail often” method becomes even more essential. Using this method, an organization can test marketing failures and use those results — be they positive, negative, or inconclusive because the right test information hasn’t been gathered yet — to inform future decisions.

Approaching failed tests as a celebration breeds a company culture of learning and experimentation, as ideas are no longer thought of as good or bad but tests that must be set up. Moreover, failed tests can prevent a course of action that might otherwise have been taken by instinct. When a test returns a negative result, for instance, that result can help adjust the path by guiding best practices — i.e., do this, not that — that avoid a full-scale, profit-impacting failure.

Our company once worked with a brand that made a simple change in the sending field of its email. After partnering with a new company, the brand decided to send an email with the new partner’s name in the “From” field while using the original company’s customer relationship list. Unfortunately, because the customers didn’t know why this “new” entity was contacting them, the emails suffered open rates one-eighth of the normal benchmark, and many recipients actually unsubscribed from the list. Had the company conducted proper testing beforehand, all of this blowback could’ve been avoided.

How to Develop a Culture of Tested Failure

Organizations that use these three strategies can maximize their marketing tests and develop a company culture of effective failure:

1. Establish a Testing Budget, and Define Metrics Based on Impact

A testing budget is essential, and organizations should communicate internally that this budget is an investment in marketing research and development. The payoff is not in dollars but in data, so fight for a significant sum. Consider this money sunk to keep it from being appropriated elsewhere.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos recently pointed out that the negative effect of failure during experimentation is capped. You can only lose as much money as you put into your testing budget. But there’s an unlimited number of outcomes an experiment can have that you can leverage and use to grow your organization.

And while your testing budget shouldn’t be viewed as directly impacting ROI, however, the test outcomes should be. Measuring increased brand awareness is different than trying to improve quality leads in high-profit business areas, so your company’s end goals, which are novel during these tests, should likewise change how you measure the tests’ success.

2. Prioritize Your High-Level Objectives, and Plan Testing Formats

Define high-level overall learning objectives, and build the tests from the top down, keeping in mind both the message you want to deliver and when your potential clients are most likely to be receptive to that message. Looking at it from the customer’s point of view will help you develop messaging and delivery methods with better timing, and a clear, guiding objective helps you understand how best to collect and analyze data.

Then, leverage a road map-style format with if/then test functions that can help you implement changes based on test feedback by allowing you to analyze results frequently and improve your message. This agile, creative deployment not only helps you accommodate the test results, but it also allows you to test many things quickly.

For instance, we had a client whose primary objective was to improve its customer portal website. To figure out the most desirable format, we used programmatic design. Users were divided, with each group being served a different format. In less than a week, the most effective format was discovered and implemented, while the company witnessed improvements in all engagement measures and fewer users accessed the help feature.

3. Set Appropriate Testing Periods, and Stick With Them

Ending tests that seem to produce extremely good or bad results too early or keeping a borderline test running too long are two pitfalls companies must avoid. All tests should be planned with a fixed testing period that allows you to collect enough data and draw statistically significant conclusions.

Moreover, if you want to make changes during a test, include an A/B split as part of your approach. In general, any and all modifications should be accounted for ahead of time and should follow a structured schedule that allows you to tweak content until you achieve success. If you follow these guidelines and still aren’t seeing an improvement, shut down the tests. Continuing to sink money into a failed test is a recipe for greater failure.

Companies that start with tests that feel achievable, measurable, and relevant to their objectives work to learn from every one and open the door to successes they may not have foreseen. Identifying budgets and metrics, planning formats, and sticking with those plans can help companies strive to build a marketing culture of failure that becomes more adept and more educated every day on the job. So fail left and right, today and tomorrow, and just maybe your company will experience its best marketing year to date.

Sabrina Chamberlain, SVP, experience analytics, RAPP LA, is a seasoned expert in data-driven strategy and marketing analytics. With various leadership roles in technical consulting, marketing and business development, she provides a wide understanding and experience applying analytics-generated insights to achieve growth in startups and big-name brands.