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  • Writer's pictureJohn Bell

Building the Capability to Test-and-Learn in Digital Marketing

Updated: May 29, 2021

The new superpower in digital marketing is not some channel (No, not Tik Tok), it’s not some undiscovered tactic (No, not micro-influencers), it’s not some super-efficient creative (No, not AI-driven ad creative).

The new superpower is your ability to test-and-learn and experiment with what works for your business. Whether you are a small business or a marketer at a mid-size business or part of a digital marketing unit in a global brand, a successful digital marketing strategy is actually contingent upon having the operational capacity to constantly test and optimize.

Every business needs clear objectives. (see the Agile Marketing Canvas: Strategy). Once you are clear on what you need to accomplish, you can set up testing frameworks to reveal what works best.

There are at least four criteria to be testing and optimizing: audiences, creative (including messaging), channels, and optimization targets.

Audience Targeting

You may know your customers well and have a firm idea as to who they are demographically and even psychographically. Keep an open mind. When it comes to translating that understanding to the actual targeting criteria in Facebook or Instagram, you will need to experiment. Along the way, you may discover some customers you didn’t think you could have. Facebook audience targeting is a bit of a blunt instrument. Your best bet is to set up 2-3 audiences and test the effectiveness of your advertising on each. You can narrow down the most effective for driving whatever your optimization criteria is (e.g. conversion/sales). You can also continue to refine audience criteria.

Larger brands can combine 3rd-party data sources like Epsilon, Acxiom, or Bombora with the native targeting capabilities of a platform like Facebook. That can reveal more efficient combinations that not only cover he cost of that 3rd party data provider but produce bigger net results.

Creative and Messaging

What is going to motivate the right customer to click and buy? You can think you know, but the only way to know is to test different messages and ad creatives. The biggest mistake a marketer can make is to set aside humility and think they know best. We have long since entered the era where the customer knows best. Digital lets us quickly discover what works for them.

A lot of marketers have written tips and guides to messages. Start with a question. Start with the offer. Start with your audience’s name. There’s truth in a lot of it. Still, you will need to discover what works best for your brand, product or service. Resign yourself to constantly testing ad creative. Build your marketing capability accordingly.

For bigger brands, there are very interesting partners who can create many pieces of ad creative like Shuttlerock. They can take some core picture and video assets and create multiple ad units for many platforms at very efficient cost.


Many small businesses that sell to consumers and sell online will include Facebook and Google as their foundational channels. They are mass channels. Then you have a myriad of other choices that may or may not be right for you either because they do or don’t reach your customers or because they will or won’t be effective or efficient. Should you use TikTok or YouTube to grow reach and awareness? Is Instagram effective? How about Pinterest? Can influencers extend your reach and engagement to new audiences effectively? Once you have a hypothesis about which paid channels might work best, you need to test them to reveal just how they perform for your business.

The truth about testing is that you need benchmarks to test against. That’s why it can be better to start with 1-2 channels and establish some performance data. If you figure out what it costs to drive click-throughs or purchases via Facebook, you will have a better basis to evaluate the effectiveness of Pinterest.

Channels tend to serve some parts of the journey (or funnel) better. You can evaluate a channel when you know what you need it to do. YouTube video can drive views and therefore awareness and engagement but for most brands, it’s not the most efficient conversion channel.

Optimization Criteria

Are you trying to drive awareness, engagement or conversion? Are you a new brand that needs to build some awareness before driving people to a sale? Are you an ecommerce business that needs to drive sales as efficiently as possible? Do you need to prioritize brand or performance metrics? All of these questions lead you to optimize ads against the right criteria.

There are a growing number of Facebook ad units. Many can be optimized against different criteria: brand awareness, local awareness, traffic, lead generation, conversions and more. In Facebook, this is most clearly selected as your “objective.” It affects how your ad delivery is optimized. In YouTube, will you optimize for view rate (number of folks who watch 30+ seconds of those exposed) or cost-per-view (CPV)?

Choosing and testing against the optimization criteria available in platforms will help you fine tune your overall marketing performance.

Of course, keys to mastering test-and-learn experimentation include your ability to have a test plan where you are only testing 1-2 things at a time and to have some benchmarking data to help you understand if results are better or worse than...something.

For a small and medium-sized business, embracing this experimentation stance can seem daunting. You can find consultants to help with all or only the parts that are beyond your own capabilities. Regardless, assemble the capability to constantly experiment. As channels evolve, measurements change and the cookie-less future arrives, the only constant will be your ability to test, learn and optimize against whatever is next.

If you are a bigger brand, you will face a complete marketing culture shift that will cause you to reorganize internally, find different partners expert at “performance marketing”, and move to deliver seamlessly against brand and performance goals.

Whatever size business, grow your capability to test-and-learn digital marketing now.

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