Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

On Friday, the HBR Daily Stat posted a story about the link between high school club memberships and a person’s propensity to be a manager later in life. Later that day I ran across a tweet from Dave Zinczenko of Men’s Health Magazine, claiming that 7+ hours of sleep a night leads to a lower risk of heart disease.

The thing that strikes me about both of these articles isn’t necessarily the information that they convey – I think many would agree that getting more sleep is better and that the editor of their high school yearbook will make a good manager. What strikes me about both of these articles so completely confuse the concepts of correlation and causality.

Is seven the magic number of hours of sleep to ensure you’ll live a long and prosperous life? Or is the kind of person who sleeps at least 7 hours a night the kind of person who takes care of themselves, watches what they eat, exercises, and tries to limit the amount of stress in their life? Does being in a certain school club raise the likelihood of being a manager, or do people who gravitate towards certain school clubs (a la Freaks and Geeks) tend towards a certain kind of success?

President Bartlet: CJ, on your tombstone it’s gonna read ‘Post hoc ergo propter hoc.’
CJ: Okay, but none of my visitors are going to be able to understand my tombstone.
President Bartlet: Twenty-seven lawyers in the room, anybody know ‘post hoc, ergo propter hoc’? Josh?
Josh: Ah, post, after hoc, ergo, therefore… After hoc, therefore something else hoc.
President Bartlet: Thank you. Next? Leo.
Leo: ‘After it, therefore because of it’.

If you think I’m nitpicking over very fine distinctions, consider this: how many times has a finance manager asked you to quantify, in dollars, the benefits of your marketing activities? How many times have you been asked to predict – and later to show – causality between what you’ve done and some form of business result, no matter how multi-variate and subtly complex the interdependencies really are.

Did sales go up because of the advertising campaign you recently launched, or did they go up because the economy got better and people feel more comfortable spending money? Did market share go up because of they change you made to your product or the change that your competitor made to their product? Is your product not selling because people simply aren’t aware of your product, or is it not selling because people don’t see a need for your product. Or are there many more factors that contribute to your success or lack thereof?

While I think its important to set measurable goals and work towards attaining them, I also think its important to know when your thing did something and when you did something while something else happened at the same time. And I think its important for all of us to be honest about when it’s the former and when its the latter.

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Going beyond the sizzle (of technology marketing)

Apple GeniusIn case you haven’t picked it up on it, I’m in the business of marketing people. Yes, I market B2B solutions with a complex array of services and technologies, but at the end of the day those solutions are designed by, implemented by, managed by and bought by people. And one of the worst things an organization can do is sell a technology without keeping in mind the people that it takes to really maximize the value of that solution. So why then do marketers overlook the people that make their solutions attainable and tangible to clients?

As I like to say to my consultants and engineers, the technology on its own is the sizzle. Yes, the sound and the smell is what draws people in; it’s the “sexy” part of what we sell – but when the sizzle eventually dissipates, it’s the experts in front of the customer, strategically evaluating the situation, who will ultimately be held accountable for the technology’s performance.

And rest assured – the sizzle will dissipate. And unless you’re really not in to retaining customers, this should be a pretty big deal for you. No one, I repeat no one, is safe from the “so what have you done for me lately” conundrum.

So go ahead and keep marketing the crap of the technology. It is after all what brings customers in the door. But getting them in the door is only half the battle. Once they’re in the door – the technology needs to tell a story, and that story ultimately needs to be about marketable people. For without people, technology comes down to bits and bytes and eventually we all start to look the same (see PC industry).

One of the senior executives I work with and whom I have a tremendous amount of respect for has a mantra I oft hear him recite.

“People do business with people they like, trust and respect.”

We’ve reached a point where technology is a great differentiator but also our greatest challenge. In this age of rapid obsolescence, something better will eventually come along. But good people, trustworthy people, who have a vested interested in their customers can quell that fear.

If you stop and think about it, we are surrounded by companies who win because of the people they market, who are bringing products and solutions that are not only at their respective forefronts, but also backed by great people. From Apple to Xerox, these organizations win because there are people behind them that we like, trust and respect.

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Seth: Are you a scientist?

Are you a scientist?

Ask a physicist what will happen if you fire a projectile like this in that direction, and she’ll know. Ask a chemist what happens if you mix x and y, and you’ll get the right answer. Even quantum mechanics mechanics can give you probabilities that work out in the long run.

I’m not always the biggest fan of Seth Godin’s brand of “crackerjack marketing” – for my taste it generally lacks the subtlety and nuance that paints life in anything other than primary colors 1– but I do have to admit that most of his observations are sound, at least in the broad strokes.

As someone who spent the better part of his life as a scientist, I can tell you that while Seth’s observation might be technically right, it does lack the subtlety of insight.  Scientists spend vast tracts of time testing and observing the world, and only after gathering, collating, and interpreting the data do they build hypotheses of how the world works.

Scientists make predictions, and predicting the future is far more valuable than explaining the past.

In reality, scientists predict the future by explaining the past.  And to be fair, they don’t so much “predict the future” as tell you what would be consistent with past observations.

But buried somewhere here is a lesson, whether you’re in science, marketing, or any other knowledge worker driven field: future insights are only as good as the summation of your past observances.  It is, at times, attractively expedient2 to rely on “key thought leaders in the field”3 to generate your “insights” rather than a full-fledged primary marketing research study.  We can’t do large-scale marketing research studies, the argument goes, because we don’t have the budget.

But ask yourself this question: what’s more expensive – fielding and executing a good primary marketing research study, or better on a product that only a small handful of people will like?

Or as I’ve heard said before, The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘evidence’.”4


  1. I know there are a great many “Seth-heads” out there. Please understand that I’m in no way saying that being a “Seth-head” is wrong, only that he doesn’t suite my taste. It would be a shame if the only thing you took from this article was this comment about Seth, as I’m trying to address a larger point, which you’ll hopefully see below.
  2. READ: Cheap and fast.
  3. READ: A few good customers.
  4. I can’t seem to find the original source of this quote, so I’ll link to where I first remember hearing it. It now graces a crude printed sign hanging on my own cubicle wall.

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Strategy on One Page

Strategy on One Page

It comes down to asking the “Why, what, who, and how” of your business, arraying it across one page in a way that makes it extremely useful as an alignment tool amongst management or board members. This is hardly a novel concept, but it falls into that category of common sense that is not so commonly done.

Tjan goes on to outline 4 questions he thinks helps frame up the gestalt of a company.  Those questions include:

  1. What’s the big idea?  Why do you exist?
  2. What is your value proposition?
  3. Who are you trying to serve?
  4. How do you know you are winning?

Not sure I agree on the order of the questions, but the intent, I think, is sound: if you can’t clearly and succinctly describe your company to yourself, how will you ever be able to describe it to anyone else.

Put it another way: if you’re asked what you do at a family get-together, how are you going to explain yourself?

One potential pitfall of the above questions is the temptation to answer them too broadly.  Often I have heard people say “Well, my product is really a global product, and my positioning is really global positioning, so I’m really serving everyone everywhere.”

It seems that the most successful companies are those that are able to answer the above questions as narrowly as possible.  Take 37signals for example: they have a very narrowly defined user base that in turn informs a very narrowly defined product.  If a customer asks for a product modification, more often than not their answer is “No, we’re not going to do that. We’d hate to lose you as a customer, but we understand if your needs have outgrown our product.”

Compare that to Microsoft and their almost pathological need to have “Windows Everywhere for Everyone.”

The most important of the four questions above, I think, is #4 … how do you know you are winning?  It’s easy to focus on doing things, but as my friend John likes to say “Activity does not equal accomplishment” (not sure from where he borrowed that).  You need to know what success looks like, you need to know what and how to change mid-stream, and you need to have enough data to make an informed decision.

How do you think through a business strategy?

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VW gears up underserved segment

Every now and then I come across some really great advertising and when I do I try to make a point of calling it out. Though usually just post it on Facebook, occasionally I may also blog about it. This is one of those times.

Volkswagen has over the last several months put out a handful of really good commercials, a couple in particular that I would say are great. That said, before I make my case, I’ll let you decide for yourself.

OK – so here’s why I think these stand out in particular…

VW tells a compelling story in under a minute. And it’s a story that resonates with a generation of parents across the nation. StarWars, yeah we get that. Heck, that particular commercial could have been filmed in my house, it was so close to home (minus the VW in the driveway). And the parental fear of a kid sneaking off with the car… again, we get that. But they told it without the tired father-son speech about someday this car will be his, blah blah blah.

Besides a great story, and perhaps more importantly, VW demonstrates a clear understanding of their target segment and show cases the brand in a context meaningful to that segment. Affluent suburbanites, Gen-Xers with kids, above average tech savvy, who want functionality as well as aesthetics.

VW doesn’t try to go after BMW here or any other “performance” brand. I mean, it is German engineered and no one would have been surprised nor faulted them if they had. But the car never even leaves the driveway!!! Much less fly around some curvy hillside with the disclaimer of “professional driver, closed course”. Instead, there was a clear focus on NOT being BMW. VW is “your” car… you, the hard working, white collar, family-values parent that clearly has a desire for something above average, but without being extravagant or superfluous.

I love what VW has done. Some might perceive this as a risky route. They’re not talking performance (BMW), they’re not talking safety (Volvo), they’re certainly not competing at the entry level value segment (Hyundai). And yet, I’d argue they’ve captured a valuable segment, one that has long been overlooked.

Well done, VW. Das marketing.

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HBR: The Risks of Quantification

The Risk of Quantification

Admitting uncertainty means facing reality — and our own needs for security. But admitting uncertainty is not enough. We must learn to actively embrace uncertainty and work with ambiguity.

As I sit in a two day meeting about drawing insights from data quantification, this article is very timely.  Obviously there’s merit in looking at your data and trying to draw as many insights as possible, but we as marketers can sometimes end up hiding behind the data, using them as an excuse to take no action in favor of gathering and analyzing more data.

There comes a time, however, where you have to accept whatever level of ambiguity you’re willing to accept, make a decision, and take action.  The question then becomes: When is the right time?  A better question might be: What do I get by delaying and gathering more data?  Am I falling prey to the law of diminishing returns?

As the ever-prescient Merlin Mann likes to say, “How do you know when you have enough [information] to get started?  What can you not do with the [information] you have right now?” 1

How do you overcome “Analysis Paralysis”?


  1. You can read more here or watch here.

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