Why Saying “I don’t know” Makes You a Good Marketer


“Until you can admit what you don’t know, it’s virtually impossible to learn what you need to. Because if you think you already have all the answers, you won’t go looking for them.” ~Stephen Dubner

On my last commute to work I was listening to the most recent Freakonomics podcast based on a chapter in their newest book titled “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language”. Here’s the link to the podcast, I highly recommend it. And I will be buying the book. (And no, I have no affiliation with Freakonomics, but I do love their stuff.)

Authors Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt examine how in organizations of all shapes and sizes managers and decision makers are afraid to admit that they don’t know something. In the podcast they talk to Amanda Waterman, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Leeds who has found that three quarters of children will pretend they know the answer to ridiculous unanswerable questions like “Is a jumper angrier than a tree?” Together the authors and the researcher speculate on the reasons why this happens in the children and in adults. One idea is that we are conditioned to give the “right” answer to the teacher in school who has power over us, and that now we behave the same way because we have a “boss” who has power over us. They explain the behavior as rooted in fear, fear of being fired, fear of appearing stupid by admitting not to know the answer to because we are expected to be “experts”.

What struck me is that what I was hearing was so different from my day to day experience. I was surprised to discover that that is how the world operated around me. I was honestly not aware of the phenomenon of “I don’t know avoidance”, because digital marketing – the world I operate in – arguably is rooted in testing, experimentation and data collection and derives its effectiveness from embracing “I don’t know” to the fullest. Yes. I didn’t know that managers were afraid of saying I don’t know. And I am OK with that. Learning is a lifelong process.

Effective digital marketing depends on “I don’t know”

With the podcast on my brain, I talked to my business partner Eric Layland to get his thoughts. Eric is one guy who knows a lot, probably more than 90% of people out there about digital marketing. He has been in the digital space for about 20 years. And yet he regularly says I don’t know. And that is something that I admire about him. But I never thought that it was unusual until just now. It occurred to me through talking to him that in our organization and our work “I don’t know” is par for the course. We say it to each other. We say it to clients. We encourage it in employees and partners. We encourage it in our clients. We definitely expect it from interviewees for jobs here. In fact, we are immediately suspicious when we encounter a “know-it-all”. Know-it-alls are like Unicorns: they don’t exist. The caveat is that while it is OK not to know, once you figure that out – to quote Stephen Dubner – you must “work like a dog to learn it.” And that means that you need to be willing to experiment.

Admit “I don’t know” for a chance to become a hero

If you think you already think you have all the answers, you will not find out what opportunities you may be missing. A simple, often inexpensive test – whether it’s testing your homepage or your purchase funnel or A/B testing of your landing page to see which converts better – will open the door to more revenue, better ROI, and if you’re the astute marketer who proposes it in your company, to a chance at hero status because the data you collect will be able to show the impact (e.g. dollars saved, additional dollars earned, opportunities to improve a process and reduce costs) of your new strategy discovered through experimentation.

Saying I don’t know is a first step to opening yourself to opportunities and success at a relatively low cost and low risk.

In fact, would say that every good marketer’s mantra is “I don’t know the answer to that – but let’s test it and find out!” Trying different things, approaches, experimenting with different solutions, testing them and making decisions based on the data is what makes digital marketing so powerful. We have a lot of data. Even with all that, we don’t have all the answers. But it’s OK not to know.

What happens when you don’t say “I don’t know”

The podcast goes on into discussing the very real consequences of not saying I don’t know. An organization that is not willing to test the limits of its knowledge through experimentation may invest into strategies that at best produce no return and at worst are a complete (and staggering) waste of resources.  Steven Levitt discusses a consulting engagement in which a large international retailer company that was advertising via different channels, specifically TV and newspapers, refused to run a test to determine the effectiveness of their marketing efforts because – he speculated – this would be tantamount to admitting not knowing the answer. Consequently, several years and likely a billion advertising dollars later, that retailer is still advertising in the same channels.

Sounds crazy, right? Or at least irrational. So don’t be like that. Don’t fear “I don’t know” say it if it true, then test and learn and achieve hero status in your organization. (We can help guide you.)

“There’s only one way to learn, and that’s through feedback.” ~Steve Levitt

Dorota Umeno

Author Dorota Umeno

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