The five whys

The five whys

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A tale of stone erosion and insect behaviour illuminates the importance of asking more whys, writes Rory Sutherland

Back in the late 1980s, the parks service in the United States were concerned about the erosion of the Lincoln Memorial. So they asked the maintenance staff why the stone was decaying.

They were told that it was necessary to use high-power sprays as often as once a fortnight in order to clean the masonry.

Why so? It seems they needed to spray to get rid of the large volume of bird droppings which accumulated on the building in huge quantities.
So they erected bird nets.

These were understandably unpopular with tourists, so the parks service called in the maintenance workers again and asked, ‘Why is there such a poop problem?’
‘The birds come to feed on the spiders,’ they learned. ‘And the spiders are there to eat the midges.’ After dark, it seems, the memorial was coated in midges flying in from nearby marshland.

Predictably they tried insecticides. But these seemed not to work, and were in any case potentially dangerous. So the committee finally asked one more question. Why are there so many midges in the first place?
Because the building is floodlit, they were told.

In the end they tested turning the lights on later in the evening — after sunset, not before — and they turned them off earlier, following a suggestion from Donald Messersmith, an entomologist. When they tested this approach, midge numbers fell by 85 per cent.
It is a wonderful story, and has entered folklore in a philosophy called ‘the five whys’. The idea is that you should always go on asking ‘why’ in order to get to the root cause of a problem rather than the proximate cause. If you do this, the solution to what at first appears to be a masonry-cleaning problem may turn out to reside in seemingly unrelated questions of lighting and insect behaviour.

As the blogger Steve Coast explained, the kind of complex problem described in this story - and the need to seek out deeper “whys” - will grow in importance over the coming years. As more and more first-order problems are solved, the problems which remain will increasingly be complex problems - of the kind typically solved by oblique intervention.

This is especially true for marketers. And so you would think that anything which allowed you reliably and affordably to discover the answer to more and more “whys” would be catnip to people in marketing.

I would suggest that digital media presented us with this opportunity. Except we have so far mostly wasted it through a blinkered approach to measurement and accountability.

Anyone who has ever met the great Drayton Bird  knows that he is far from being the kind of arty-farty, commercially-uninterested copywriter of common caricature. But I still remember him saying very early in my working career something both true and surprising: “You don't do direct marketing to make money,” he said. “You do it to learn.”

His point holds even more true of digital marketing. Valuable as it may be to optimise your conversion-rate online, it is even more valuable to use the behavioural data which direct and digital marketing generates to refine and develop your understanding about “the real whys” of human behaviour and motivation.

Used well, digital marketing has the potential to be what I call “The Galapagos Islands of consumer behaviour.” A kind of marketing archipelago where you can rapidly and inexpensively observe how people respond to different messages. While I can point to a few occasions where it has been used this way, they are strangely rare. This seems to be because the people responsible for placing and evaluating this media are preoccupied with (even bonused on) short-term returns rather than on long-term discoveries. In the analogue world of direct marketing, there was a functioning informational feedback-loop between media, creative and planning. The new media world has sacrificed this in a quest for speed and automation, based on the erroneous assumption that the way to optimise a system is to optimise its individual parts.

Let’s assume that you are in charge of online marketing for the Hilton chain. If you wish to maximise your return per marketing dollar, you will rapidly become very proficient at encouraging people who search for “hotel” and “Orlando” to book into the Hilton in Orlando. And this is a worthwhile thing to do. But what you perhaps should be doing is spending a bit of your budget on the less “efficient” but ultimately more valuable goal of finding out what might persuade people to stay in a hotel rather than an Airbnb. The price of this search, alas, is to make your metrics look worse.

At present the way we assess and optimise digital activity forces everyone to find the narrow answer to a first order question. And it’s often the wrong question. Rather than asking “How can we discourage midge infestation?” we are still asking “What’s the cheapest way to remove bird crap from a building?” This is a terrible waste.

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Author: The Marketing Society
Posted: 26 Apr 2018
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