Before becoming a digital marketer, I spent some time flying for the U.S. Air Force, during which I learned more than just how to fly a tight fingertip formation.

I'll never forget the first time I flew into rough weather. As I ascended into the gray soup and all visual references disappeared, I felt confident I was flying my aircraft straight and level.
My instructor pilot barked, “Check your instruments.”
What?
I did a quick cross-check of my instrument panel and, much to my surprise, I was in a 45-degree bank and still slowly rolling. I immediately corrected my attitude (the position of the plane relative to its own mass) back to wings-level. Despite this powerful lesson, it still took immense concentration to avoid drifting back to my instincts; even as I watched my instruments twitch, I struggled to trust them.

Similar is the battle to avoid going headlong into digital marketing campaigns with your gut instincts leading the way into the murky fog of the Web.

We're all users of the Web; it's natural for us to trust our instincts, our own sense of direction, and our own behavior to discern the proper way to market on the Web. However, as I have learned building a few Internet-based businesses, many an online marketing plan, and hundreds of digital marketing campaigns — you should always trust your instruments.

Start with the end in mind

As goes the often paraphrased and misquoted — but still valid — philosophic exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat, “If you don't know where you want to go, any road will get you there.” So too is the case with digital marketing. Most online campaigns begin with a technique or method, with no consideration of the ideal outcome. This simple oversight can overwhelmingly be sourced as the point of failure in most unsuccessful campaigns.
Start with your ideal outcome — a sales lead, an online purchase, an email capture, a social media share — and work backwards to create a smooth, frictionless path to that end.

Identify the metrics

Because the Web is a loosely connected set of interconnected networks, rarely is the path to your objective one simple step. Often you are working with a sales funnel defined by multiple steps. For example:

  1. Drive Web traffic (people) to a landing page
  2. Convince those people to click on a button to get something
  3. Deliver that something and convince them to commit to something bigger
  4. Turn that commitment into a sales lead or customer

Invariably, there will be fallout all along the way. This is where metrics are critical.
Are you measuring and comparing the changes along the path to your goals? If you're not, there is no way to make the subtle course corrections along the way. Instead you're likely to find yourself miles off course or, worse yet, in an unrecoverable spiral dive toward doom — flamed out with lots of money spent and no return on the investment.

Build in the sensors (instruments)

Metrics are great, but they're nearly impossible to manage and maintain unless there are passive sensors built into the system from the beginning.
Let me pause for a minute and explain this with specific examples.
A modern aircraft is full of sensors, measuring all kinds of things: airflow, pressure, temperature. These sensors are seamlessly built into every airframe in exactly the same, basic manner. Each of these sensors is then hooked up to instruments in a dashboard that is roughly equivalent in every aircraft. As a result, most any trained pilot can understand exactly what is going on with most any aircraft and, pretty much, safely fly it.
There's an important analogy here when it comes to building consistent and repeatable successful digital marketing campaigns:

  1. Build consistent sensors into every marketing campaign (i.e., Google analytics, goal tracking, A/B landing pages, tracking URLs, etc.)
  2. Hook them into a dashboard in a consistent and meaningful way
  3. Train your marketing professionals to read and react to the instrumentation in consistent ways

Granted, this takes a little work and forethought; however, the return yielded through the ability to measure and react is, pardon the pun, immeasurable.

Trust your instruments

You've defined your goals, you've determined the metrics, you've embedded the necessary sensors to observe your checkpoints. Now, you have to do one of the hardest part: trust those instruments; react, without hesitation or sacred cows, to that data. Just like flying in inclement weather, your gut instinct and personal intuition will often fail you.
Trust your instruments and make the disciplined adjustments to stay on point.
The Web is a loosely bound ecosystem. This makes the environment dynamic, slightly unpredictable, and full of curious human behaviors. Trusting your knowledge of the millions of possible networks, paths, and behaviors that might lead someone to your online marketing is perilous.

In contrast, building observable performance metrics and trusting those instruments to optimize campaigns will guarantee you repeatable success.

Thanks to @MichaelAdain Carroll and Marco Maceri for reading drafts of this essay.