Original drawing by Ruxandra Șerbănoiu

Knowing is only half the story

Mark Welker


“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

The common interpretation of that statement is that the wasted half can be minimised through metrics. Digital marketing promises as much. Its key strength over broadcast or print is its ‘knowability’ which can lead to vast leaps in marketing efficiency.

This knowability leads us to strange places. In content marketing for example, we’re encouraged to think that we can use engagement signals alone to guide our way through the fog of mediocre work and emerge into the garden of great work.

I think that is only half the story.

Rich media bucks this trend of ultimate transparency. The value of rich media such as video and podcasts is their ability to tell different kinds of stories through direction of its elements; sound, vision, pace, narrative, even text. In a given piece, there are so many media elements at play that it’s virtually impossible to separate out the elements to gauge their individual impact.

To truly embrace the many advantages of rich media is to step away from the idea that its value can be equally measured and optimised through data alone.

Marketers crave feedback on the content they create, and there is no shortage of food on the table. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube all offer signals such as likes, comments, retweets and reactions that present visible but incomplete stories about the content we create. Social platforms present strong cases for transactional content, that is, content that drives the bottom end of the sales funnel. But these same metrics when applied to the top of the funnel can be misleading.

Take average watch time as a metric. We launch a video that sells the vision of our business only to discover that many people fall out within the first 10 seconds. Viewership drops again after 60 seconds. In the absence of richer data, we ‘learn’ that shorter is better and that an impactful opening should improve overall watch time.

We adjust, relaunch and hope those metrics improve. We see 10+ second views improve. More make it to the end.

What we cannot see is what those people felt at the end, if anything at all. We have optimised for the transactional bias in our data.

Our hunger for knowable metrics feeds an impulse to create all content around what we know to be measurable rather than what we know to be right for our clients and companies.

It encourages a deep view of transactional engagement and a shallow view of emotional engagement ie. we end up creating content that may feel on the surface to be more relevant to our audience, but is ultimately less memorable and thus less effective in retaining attention over the long term.

Brand leaders like Apple, Dove and Nike lead with content that builds sentiment across executions, rather than within them.

As a publisher, the ‘failing’ New York Times understands that sentiment towards their brand as a trusted source of news and opinion comes from the mix and variety of content types they offer, and the perspective that drives their editorial decisions, rather than the individual appeal of each video or news piece.

Whilst marketers argue about the optimal length of a video, Vice continues to publish video that is both short (under 5 minutes) and long (over 20 minutes). They do that because Vice understand that no audience is a monoculture, and that long term engagement is greater than the sum of its parts.

Successful brands build platforms of intangibles — of values, morals, emotions, meanings — housing content and conversations that don’t always call for immediate action, but make possible a future brand-consumer interaction that can be much more valuable.

Binary signals such as likes, views and fall off charts often cause us to dwell on how we can improve those metrics, rather than an evaluation of the content itself and how it contributes or detracts from this wider conversation. We must learn to think and react like storytellers as well as marketers.

The gap between data and insight is the breadth of a good story. We can easily get carried away with replacing stories of editorial strategy, creative expertise, and audience insight with the easier and more accessible stories gleaned from metrics alone. I can say this with confidence because I worked six years in analytics and I told stories to product managers every day that motivated business decisions, and I knew very little about data science.

How we communicate content success leads us on our next course of action, and often, the course for all future content under our watch.

By reacting quickly and making content based on feedback solely from knowable metrics, we unknowingly prioritise against the more impactful unknowables such as emotion, depth, intrigue and inspiration.

Such sentiments often don’t reveal themselves right away, but create lasting engagement and ongoing opportunities for repeat conversion and conversation.



Mark Welker

Mark Welker is an award winning short fiction writer, filmmaker, day dreamer and company director at video agency Commoner.