If You Can’t See It, It’s Not There

I went to business school with a rocket scientist.

I mean that literally. One of my classmates, and somebody that I found myself working with frequently, was an actual NASA rocket scientist, and just as you’d expect, he was wicked smart.

One time, we were working on a project where we were evaluating the marketing programs that a company in this case study had done to figure out whether they should continue them, cut them or add to them. We graphed all the data, sliced it, diced it, turned it on its side, applied ridiculously sophisticated analytical tools to it, but it just didn’t look like much was happening when this company spent all this money for the marketing.

I said to my rocket scientist friend, “Maybe if we run a blah-blah-blah-fancy-math-thing on it, we’ll find a relationship between the marketing and some results.”

He looked at me and said, “Jim, here’s something I learned about analysis early in my career as an engineer: If you can’t see it, it’s not there.”

What he meant by that was that no matter what you THINK should be happening as a result of your ticket-selling (or other marketing) efforts, eventually it has to show up in tangible results or, sadly, it’s not working.

That’s not to say sometimes you don’t have to be patient. Just don’t let infinite patience be an excuse for keeping something ineffective alive.

That’s not to say that sometimes you’re not working on improving things that are hard or impossible to measure. Just don’t use that as an excuse not to measure the things (like ticket sales) that CAN be measured.

Alas, human nature doesn’t cotton to this approach. We get sentimental about the stuff we do, especially when we like it and really want it to succeed. As Boyz II Men would say, it’s so hard to say goodbye to programs we really like, even when they fall on their butt.

But sentimentality isn’t our only built-in flaw when it comes to this kind of thing. There’s also outthinking ourselves. I’ve been running a high-growth company for more than a decade and watched others run high-growth companies for almost 10 years before that, and I’ve seen a lot of things succeed and a lot of things fail. The thing that most successful things have in common, in my experience, is that they are sledgehammer simple. Not easy, mind you, but simple.

When marketers outthink themselves, they’ve got a complex web of logic, a chain of dependencies about why something is going to work. The problem is that each of these links in the chain can fail, but only one of them has to fail in order for the whole project to fail or at least sputter unimpressively (which in a way is worse).

This leads to such “True Ticket-Selling Business Stories” as the organization that told me their strategy for selling more tickets was to sell fewer tickets. I’m not kidding, and don’t ask for incriminating details. Suffice to say, it took about six months for this strategy to be abandoned.

Because most of the time, effective ticket-selling programs are relatively simple, but that simplicity is earned by hard work building a brand, an organization that is excellent, by creating a great product and understanding and valuing your patrons and fans. Simple, but not easy.

So we may have some natural weaknesses, but we’ve also got one natural strength to balance it out. We can see really well. Did people show up? Did the line representing daily ticket sales jump at some point? Is there a giant pile of cash accumulating in your bank account?

If you can see it, it’s probably there. And if not …

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