moonIn 1963, Edmund Gettier wrote a 3 page paper on philosophy questioning the concept of “knowledge.” Prior to Gettier, the Platonic definition of knowledge was commonly used — justified true belief. Justified true belief states that if P is true, and S believes that P is true, S is thus justified in believing that P is true. Essentially, S has knowledge of P. Simple example: The moon revolves around the earth. You believe the moon revolves around the earth because you have seen its orbit. You thus have the knowledge, also known as the justified true belief, that the moon revolves around the earth.

But Gettier pointed out a flaw in this argument: you can believe the right thing for the wrong reasons. And that’s a problem we need to struggle with in marketing every day.

theaterThe Gettier Problem: An Approach of Assumption

You see a friend at the movie theater, and thus conclude they were seeing a movie. In fact, that was just someone who looked like your friend. But your friend was also there at the movie; you just did not see them. You thus have the knowledge, which is correct, that they were at the theater — but you believed it for the wrong reasons. Still, your knowledge would have been no different if you had, in fact, viewed your friend instead of the look-a-like stranger.

There are some problems with Gettier’s approach as a philosophical statement. It always requires that at least one step of the process be a clear mistake, and thus incorrect.  When attempts are made to iron that issue out, it treads dangerously on “all life as a simulated lie” territory. But on a more practical level, The Gettier Problem can be rather directly applied to digital marketing.

For instance, what if you had called out to that look-a-like? The illusion would have been destroyed. What if you later ask your friend why they didn’t say “Hello” when they saw you? They would have been absolutely perplexed. Maybe there would even be an argument! The Gettier Problem is really a problem with assumptions.

mouseBelieving the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason

We make “Gettier Problem” assumptions all the time. We are constantly believing the right thing for the wrong reasons. And that seems fine, until you realize that this can adversely affect your performance in the future.

I once had the most charming, frenetic ball of energy as a supervisor. She constantly complained that her wireless mouse would kill batteries while she was at home but not in the office — even though she used the exact same mouse. We tried buying her new mice, it didn’t matter. We tried swapping the mice, it didn’t matter. She used the same computer — an old laptop — with an identical dock both at home and in the office. So we replaced her mouse at home with a wired mouse and we knew that a wireless mouse drained batteries ceaselessly at her home.

That is, until she switched desks at work… and we found that she had the same problem. Slowly we realized the weird, simple truth: the keyboard tray that she had at home, and that she installed in her new desk, was indirectly causing the wireless mouse drain the whole time! The keyboard tray made her more comfortable, so she held on to the mouse and jiggled it, constantly, the entire time she was seated. When she was on the phone. When she was on a teleconference. When she was reviewing materials. When she was in a meeting. The mouse never sat idle! We knew that it was happening, but not the correct reason why.

Well, obviously if we’d had better knowledge, we could have worked that one out much faster.

question-mark-463497_640The Value of the Skeptical Marketer

Marketers are encouraged to outline clear goals and methodology during their A/B testing process for a very simple reason: unless you isolate the actions that you take, it becomes impossible to tell whether the results you received were related to those actions. Unfortunately a digital marketing campaign is rarely a “clean” environment. There are hundreds if not thousands of factors that could be tracked; as hard as we try, some element of guesswork will exist. And that also means that we have to be both intuitive and highly skeptical as marketers.

Let’s say you change your call-to-action and receive a 2.8% increase in conversions. That’s fantastic. It’s very easy to assume that it’s the call-to-action that worked. But if you regularly see a +/- variance of 3% in your conversion rate, it could merely be random. And if you don’t compare it to prior year statistics — or don’t even have prior year statistics — you might not realize that the shift was actually seasonal.

But even more infuriatingly, your call-to-action change could have worked, in itself, but not for the reason you think it did. Say you punched up the copy and made it a lot edgier. The call-to-action worked. But maybe it wasn’t because you made it edgier. maybe it was because it also happened to be shorter, which moved the “call-to-action” button above the fold.

In other words, the change of button location is what increased conversion. If you take the obvious answer, you’ll go around making your call-to-actions edgier and you may not see the same results. Instead, you could be changing your button locations to a greater effect.

A great deal of marketing is about avoiding assumptions. This is what separates the marketers who are attempting by-the-numbers optimizations and marketers who can easily intuit relationships within the field. You can train yourself to be a skeptic simply by always taking the time to ask questions about what you believe to know to be true.

Jenna Inouye
Jenna I. is a freelance writer, programmer and web developer, focusing on the areas of digital marketing, technology, gaming and finance. Hire Jenna through WriterAccess or contact her directly.

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