I just had the opportunity to watch Episode 97: “Airplane on a Conveyor Belt” and it was very interesting. The question they were out to answer was “Can an airplane take off if it is on a conveyor belt that is moving the opposite direction from where it is trying to take off?” Without much thought a person would say no. I sure did. My thoughts being that with the conveyor belt moving in the opposite direction the plane would just sit still.
This brings us to 2 questions “why is it wrong?” and “how is that related to marketing?”
The first question takes some getting used to. The Straight Dope has a good explanation and I will attempt to summarize it here. The answer is in short that the speed of the conveyor belt does not matter. A plane forces itself through the air via the engines. The wheels spinning on the conveyor belt merely provide a way for the plane to have less friction with the ground. The plane is not using the wheels to push itself the way a car does. Essentially, the plane will move forward no matter what.
The best visualization I can give you is this: Picture a plane flying in the air. Now imagine that its wheels are down. Now put a conveyor belt in your picture moving in the opposite direction the plane is flying. Does the plane slow down? No, the wheels will just spin like crazy. It has no effect on the plane flying in the air because the wheels are free spinning and are not a means of propulsion. Get it? The dynamics don’t change on the ground.
Here is another way to think of it. If you were on roller skates and moved yourself by only pulling on a rope you would not have to exert any more effort to pull yourself forward on standard ground than on a conveyor belt. The reason is that you are moving because of pulling on the rope and therefore even with a conveyor belt on the ground you will not move backwards, the wheels will just spin and you pull yourself forward as normal. Replace you with a plane and the rope with an engine and you have this one all wrapped up.
So now on to the second question, how this has to do with marketing. It reminded me of a simple fact of marketing: things are not always as they seem. And beyond that even when you have the information it might be difficult to understand.
This all revolves around one thing: what is driving this?
The reason the plane example is hard to understand is because people think a plane moves like a car – which uses the ground to propel itself – when it, as obvious as it may seem, moves like a plane – which is not driven by the ground. Understanding what is driving the plane is fundamental to understanding the answer as a whole.
This is the same as with marketing and web analytics. It is great that people are coming to your site or people love your marketing, but finding out why they love it is the only way you can repeat it. If you sell clothing and a particular ad drives people to the site you have success. But what if the reason isn’t the product but who the product was on or what the setting was of the photo shoot. Trying to turn that into a campaign – which you should be tracking – is going to be impossible if you don’t know what is driving the sales. If you feature the same product but on a different person does it still sell? Or perhaps is was the combination of all 3 that did it and you can’t reproduce the same thing no matter how hard you try. You will be left spinning your wheels.
Whenever you start to read data coming in from your various campaigns, remember that that is all it is – data. Data does not become information until you have context. And context is only actionable if you know what is driving the whole thing. The answers may not come easily, and it may be a ton of work, and even then you yourself and/or others may question the results, but if you have solid reasoning and understand what is driving it you are in a very powerful position; the position of having not data or even information, but knowledge.