One of the benefits of digital marketing is our ability to test and iterate. If the A version of the ad outperforms B, pause B; if landing page C out-converts D, drive users to B; and so on. A willingness to learn is, I believe, a digital marketer’s greatest asset. No dogma, just data…for the most part. Thing is, there is another type of learning that can help marketers develop intuition. Or at least what looks like intuition to the casual observer.
I call it learning from luck — from “happy accidents.” This kind of learning gets short shrift but is, in fact, quite important. It sounds easy but is actually quite nuanced and challenging. Why? Because it involves working backwards with no known variables — because we rarely know that the happy accident has occurred in the first place and certainly have no idea at first what caused it. Luck often falls outside of pre-determined key performance indicators, or outside of conversion funnels we’re tracking, or outside the report we email our boss, or, or , or.
Get this right, though, and you’ll exceed your goals, innovate more quickly, and look like an absolute genius. Here are some pointers on how to practice the discipline of learning from luck.
- Set aside 1 hour every 2 weeks for a deep dive. Put it in your calendar and keep it sacred.
- Begin the hour by opening your analytics dashboard of choice. It really doesn’t matter which one. If you don’t have dashboards, get them now by placing Google Analytics code in your site template or site pages, employing a trackable direct email program such as Constant Contact or MailChimp, etc. If you’re an enterprise user, make sure you have access to every relevant in-house dashboard. Warning: this may require talking to IT. Get used to that — it is extraordinarily helpful, if not entirely essential. Plus, IT folks don’t bite.
- Open up the date range to begin with the last time you did this and end with the current day.
- Observe with curiosity. This is key. Just look at various metrics — page views, search terms, referring traffic sources, top clicked links in email, bestselling products, top outbound links, highest traffic days, etc. Think forensically. What happened? Find something that looks interesting or, better yet, anomalous.
- Once you’ve found the outlier, research the hell out of it. Answer the question: what caused this to happen? Track it all the way back to the source. Be open-minded here; you might be surprised by what drove a bump in a given stat. The web is huge and (very) weird things happen.
- As you go, take screenshots and paste them into PowerPoint or Keynote so you can retrace your steps.
- Once you’ve solved the riddle, print out your steps, show them to someone, and tell them the story of what happened. Putting the activity in narrative form will cement in your own head exactly what happened and why. Plus, you’ll get feedback and feel good about your discovery.
- Think or talk about how you might now be able to “make” this happen in the future. Get creative here. Look for directly similar possibilities but also analogous ones. Perhaps your findings are applicable to other sites or activities entirely.
- Set up tracking for this new-found goal and implement a test.
- Lather, rinse, repeat.
The object lesson for me in this came a couple years ago and, unfortunately, was borne of tragedy. However, it illustrates what I’m getting at quite well.
In Febrary 2010, my colleagues and I had recently launched Science Fiction and Fantasy community Suvudu. One day, news broke that Professor Amy Bishop had shot and killed three University of Alabama Huntsville co-workers. Several days later a Boston Herald reporter wrote a story about Bishop’s love of the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons. The same day, in response though not explicitly stated, Suvudu writer Matt Staggs rounded up a group of authors to share their experiences growing up with D&D. The resulting blog post was tweeted by Boing Boing. Traffic spiked, though I only found that out later when I took the above steps.
Mr. Staggs’s timing and voice were impeccable, no doubt, but the Boing Boing pick-up was luck — hard-earned and well-deserved but certainly not an every day occurrence for the site at that time. On figuring out what had happened and what the resulting metrics looked like, I had the following rather self-evident take-aways:
- Suvudu could and should comment on the news in a timely and authentic manner
- We needed to monitor Twitter for tweets mentioning Suvudu
- We needed to embrace other blogs more than we had to wit
We applied these principles to other sites such as the books/movies mash-up vertical Word & Film and were rarely disappointed with the results. In fact, what began as timing and luck eventually became intent and habit. It has been my experience that learning from luck often opens the door to innovation. So, good luck and happy learning.