Deep Marketing Knowledge

Written on 29 August 2021

During my vacation this week, I watched MasterChef. I was amazed by how specific the judges' feedback was.

Gordon Ramsay said to one of the contestants that the scallops needed another 30 seconds. Another judge commented that he couldn't taste an ingredient that the contestant mentioned in the name of a dish. Another said she would pick another part of the pork for a dish.

The judges, being professional chefs, likely have cooked enough over the years and knew exactly what they were saying. It could also be the other way round. Being so specific made them great chefs. I, on the other hand, can only comment whether what I'm eating is tasty or not. I cannot discern the finer levels of "tastiness" and explain why something is tasty or not.

What deep marketing knowledge looks like

Marketing is similar. A good indication of deep marketing knowledge is being able to explain why a piece of marketing is good or bad and be specific about it.

Generally, I think there are three levels of depth:

  1. The first level is being able to comment on whether a piece of marketing overall is good or bad. Usually, you would make this assessment based on the results. For example, if a piece of blog post gets a lot of traffic, you would say the blog post is good. But this isn't a deep understanding of marketing. Marketers who understand marketing metrics should be able to make such assessments.
  2. The second level is being able to comment on whether the individual components of the marketing work are good or bad. Instead of simply saying the blog post is good because it received a lot of traffic, you go one level deeper to comment on the title, the structure, the content, and so on. They might say something like "this blog post did well likely because the title and the content are well-written." While this is deeper than commenting on the piece of marketing overall, it still is not deep enough.
  3. The third level is being able to explain (or at least have a hypothesis of) why the piece of marketing is good or bad. This might look something like "the title matches the search intent, and the content answers what the searcher is looking for by talking about X, Y, and Z."

Why isn't it good enough to evaluate a piece of marketing based on its results? It is not enough because the goal of marketing is not only to generate good results but to do so consistently. Without understanding why something did well, you will not be able to replicate it.

For example, updating old blog posts is a well-understood practice now. But five years ago, it was a new concept introduced by HubSpot and later popularized by SEOs like Brian Dean. Even back then, Brian Dean had a deep understanding of content relaunch. He knew that to get the best results, you should update not just any blog posts but blog posts that rank #7-#15, that are losing organic traffic, or that are under-performing. He didn't simply tell people to update their blog posts or "write better content" but specifically mentioned adding a new case study, addressing common reader questions, and updating screenshots and explained why those are necessary. He had a framework with specific steps.

Of course, this is not truly scientific. And maybe not all of what Brian Dean did is necessary. But I'm sure he can more consistently increase the organic traffic to updated blog posts than someone who knows he should update old blog posts but doesn't know why that is good and what exactly to do.

How to get better

First, assess all marketing with more specific criteria. For example, instead of evaluating an ad as good or bad, try to explain why the ad is good or bad. Is it bad because it is irrelevant to you so the targeting is wrong? Is it good because the copy described your pain point in the exact words you would use? I tried doing this with Yeti Distro by analyzing why a marketing campaign or strategy is good or bad.

Second, have a hypothesis for all your marketing work and then evaluate whether it is valid. You are not aiming to be 100% correct or to find the exact "answer" because the messiness of reality makes that impossible. The goal is to get a better understanding over time so that you can replicate the success more consistently. For example, we had a blog post on social media algorithm, which was read and shared a lot. I hypothesized that marketers like it because they want to understand social media algorithms better to get more organic reach. So when Instagram introduced an algorithm for the timeline, I wrote a blog post explaining the Instagram algorithm. It did well, and many other blogs started writing about the Instagram algorithm. But with the validated hypothesis, I was able to go further and replicate the success by writing about how to get more organic reach on Instagram and another blog post on the Twitter algorithm.

Third, document your ideas. I unintentionally discovered that giving presentations, going on podcasts, and writing strategy documents are good ways to force myself to think deeper. For example, when I presented on building a winning content strategy, I had to describe what I think a good piece of content is (relevant, useful, reliable, easy-to-read, and right, in my opinion). I also recently explained on a podcast how Buffer competes with HubSpot on content with a small team (unique and personal content was my answer).

"What I cannot create, I do not understand" is one of my favorite lines from Richard Feynman. Similarly, being able to explain why a piece of marketing is good or why it performed well is, to me, a good indication of deep marketing knowledge.