What You Think You Know About Anything Is Typically Both Right Wrong

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Photo: Thomas Hawk via Flickr

(Note: This is a wonkish marketing/media related post. It started out as a comment, but grew into a blog post. If, even after being warned that it’s marketing/media wonkishness, you still want to read it, this post will make a great deal more sense if, for context, you read the essay linked below.)

“What You Think You Know About the Web Is Wrong,” an essay by Tony Haile that appeared earlier this week on Time.com, is one of those counter-conventional-marketer-think items that I typically find intriguing. And I find much to agree with in it. Unlike Haile, however, I do not think the greatest challenge (or, opportunity) to marketing is re-prioritizing web metrics and placing a new label like “Attention Web” on what, at the end of the day, is just another set of web metrics. I think the opportunity is developing a new understanding of the value of media that can correct those things we think about the way markets work  (and not just about the web) that are all wrong. While I think metrics and data will be at the center of that new marketplace, I don’t think the metrics that will ultimately matter will be “web metrics.”

While I agree with him on much, I’ll point out (as he discloses) Haile clearly has a dog in the hunt (he’s CEO of a web analytics company that has traditional publishers as clients), his findings seem to contain a bit of cognitive bias that enable his findings to line up precisely with those his  publisher-clients would, no doubt, love to believe.

Of course, as I’ve said for over a decade on this blog (as a running joke), “I never trust research or statistics unless they support something I already believe.” So I’ll admit that Haile’s research lines up with some of my cognitive biases also. However, unlike publishers with traditional media business models, my primary professional focus has always been on helping companies create direct-to-customer media channels and the type of recurring content that is mutually beneficial to customer and company. It is media that supports our clients’s various business models; not media that is a business model.

I find much to agree with him on the pieces and parts (or, as he describes them, “small signals and changes”) he uses to build a case for what he calls, the “Attention Web.” However, I believe that term and its description merely re-balance the relative importance of factors in the first-wave of web metrics that marketers and media companies have used to create those things we hate about advertising-supported websites (dozens of things to click, intrusive pop-ups, pageview-churning techniques like slideshows).

hammer-nailsHis suggestions that better design, smarter content and understanding how the web works are all great. But as with Haile’s observation that metrics that measure social “likes” and “follows” merely tell you about social “likes” and “follows,” the analytics he points to in the Attention Web merely reveal how much attention the site receives, or how a user actually “uses” the site, not how that attention relates to sales or how customers and brands interact. Advertising, be it on a website or in its various off-line forms and formats, is but one facet of a complex network of decisions, research, interactions, influence, training, support and on-and-on, that must work together to generate the metrics that relate to revenue for the seller and value for the buyer.

It would be so easy if the only thing that mattered in marketing was figuring out where to place an ad on the page to get more people to pay attention to it…but that’s just one tiny part of the journey from potential customer to owner.

Rather than make a case for finding another set of metrics that only matter to those who care about web metrics, I think marketers would be better served to skip the era of trying to game the “Attention Web” and go straight to trying to serve customers who are more-and-more migrating to an “Intention Economy” where buyers and sellers, owners and creators, causes and supporters form new models of web-enabled, mutually-beneficial marketplaces and relationships.

I think web and traditional advertising, and for that matter, traditional media channels and various channels of the web, will all play vital roles in creating such marketplaces. I agree that much of what Haile describes as the Attention Web is important to understand and use. And I fully endorse his findings on what I know also to be true from scientific research: Top Ten Headlines Generate Clicks to Articles That Aren’t Read.

But embracing the notion of an “attention web” is just another thing we’ll one future day think we know about the web that we will discover was both right, and wrong.