marketing closer to the metal

Running a successful business means being hyper-focused on your bottom line: the core objective that will ultimately drive any business decision. The more effectively a company’s partners can make decisions impacting this key objective, the more successful the company will be. Software engineers use a phrase to describe getting to the core: working “closer to the metal.”

ogres campaigns are like onions

At its simplest, a computer is a machine for moving information around. They run on a basic language known as machine code, and various programming languages are built on top of this foundation that engineers use to write the software that you and I actually see and interact with.

As you add these languages on top, you move farther from the core machine code. As engineers dig through these layers to make performance improvements and understand how information is actually being moved through the computer, they’ll work “closer to the metal.”

For marketers, reducing the layers by connecting campaigns and other initiatives with actual business goals is a primary way to tap directly into a brand’s core objectives. So just how do we market “closer to the metal?”

To build the best-performing software that can support more users or faster load times, engineers need to ensure servers and CPUs send the right packets of information to the right place as quickly as possible for maximum usability. For marketers and brands, it’s the same challenge.

It could be making sure that ads are personalized, surfacing customer data to your frontline support staff, posting content to Instagram, integrating customer feedback into your product roadmap, or training the sales team—all of these are information problems. And having fewer steps between campaign tactics and the business goal will mean less loss of time (or money) and higher quality. In short, fewer steps means better performance for the campaign, and higher value for the customer and your internal team.

half a red onion on a wooden table

from black box to information overload

In marketing or sales, information moved around by a successful campaign will ultimately take one very familiar form: liquid capital. Cold hard cash that you should be traceable from your work as a marketer to the financial impact on the business.

Clicks, impressions, and views only matter when they produce a real business outcome. Digital campaigns often unfold in real-time, and good marketers will keep their finger on the pulse of metrics like these. But how much actual revenue is a view, like, or comment worth? Smarter marketers will tie these metrics to tangible business outcomes.

Decades ago, marketing channels were simpler, but it was difficult for marketers to draw a direct line from their efforts to cash flow. Campaigns looked to print and direct mail, then radio and TV, to share brand messages. It was a time of “spray and pray,” an era during which John Wanamaker uttered the famous phrase: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” —John Wanamaker

Enter digital. Now, we have so much more data about how campaigns are performing, from click-through rates and engagements to video views and traffic volume. There’s only one problem. The siren’s song of vanity metrics can lure us away from the core drive of marketing: generating revenue.

A programmer might move closer to the metal by understanding how their data is actually being parsed, stored, and accessed on a server, and ultimately how it’s being compiled into machine code. A marketer should take the same reductive philosophy to their marketing work. To optimize bids on a remarketing list, for example, a good marketer will seek out the audiences that historically have produced the greatest revenue, and increase bids on those first.   

Metrics are important indicators of success, and I would absolutely encourage any marketing team to eat, breathe, and live these, as our team does. But at the end of the day, you can’t deposit “clicks” into the bank.

At the end of the day, you can’t deposit “clicks” into the bank.

begin with the end in mind

After identifying what (and how) to measure, marketing closer to the metal means asking the right questions. I recently helped lead a brainstorm session with a client where we discussed their audience strategy:

“What are we trying to do? What’s the ultimate goal?” I asked.

The client answered: “We’re trying to increase engagement with our target audience.”

“Ok. But why?” I pushed back. “What are we actually trying to do?”

“Increase the number of people from our target audience who are interested in our content?”

“Is ‘interest’ the point?” I asked. “Who cares if your content sees more engagement?”

I was certainly being a bit of a devil’s advocate, channeling my Freshman Composition English teacher who wrote So what? in the margins of all of my papers.  But my professor had a point: at its core, what was the real goal of my essay, or, in this case, the client’s marketing efforts?

“We’re trying to sell,” I said. “We want more people to buy your product.”

The proverbial light bulb went off. Once we stripped away the layers of jargon that trip up even the most seasoned marketers and brand managers, we could speak the same language, the core language that the business was built upon revenue.

Marketers need to begin with the So what?, with the end goal in mind, because those bottom-of-the-funnel business outcomes are what we’ll be held accountable to.

become a metalhead

The most successful brand-agency relationships are crafted on this foundation. By measuring results that really matter and building campaigns against actual business goals—not vanity metrics or bright shiny objects—we’re marketing closer to the metal. We cut the bullshit, ask ourselves So what?, and build a culture of speaking the same core language with a client that paves the way for lasting trust and true collaboration.

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