Marketing BS — Downside of Legibility
Good morning everyone,
Last August, I wrote an essay called “The Upside of Legibility.” The term “legibility” refers to the standardization and commodification of products, services, and ideas. For instance, think about how the marketing industry has transitioned from illegible (e.g., the Mad Men era of selling the IDEA of value) to legible (e.g., the focus on attribution and ROI).
Legibility is a BIG topic, and I planned to release a three-part series on its impact and influences. Now that my fourth child is six months old, I’ve had some time to continue thinking and researching.
It’s time to continue the quest with today’s essay, where I will outline some of the challenges that stem from our obsession with legibility.
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A few years ago, Julia Galef—host of the Rationally Speaking podcast and author of The Scout Mindset—shared this controversial perspective:
In response, technology lawyer Dan Frank wrote an insightful blog post defending the value of travel. I recommend reading the entire article, but for today’s essay I want to highlight these two paragraphs:
There are many ways you can learn about the Beatles’ album Abbey Road. You can analyze the lyrics, study the sheet music, or read an ethnographic study on people from Liverpool. Or you can simply listen to the album. In some sense, if you read about Abbey Road, you will know more about it, but in a more meaningful sense, if you listen to Abbey Road, you will understand it better.
You will learn a lot about the world from reading Tolstoy, eating Szechuan food and watching Ingmar Bergman movies, but travel, like listening to Abbey Road, is about an entirely different kind of learning. Travel reveals insights about the diversity and commonalities of the human and community experience that are otherwise illegible.
When you read a non-fiction book, you learn some concrete—and often quantifiable—facts. But when you travel, the “facts” you learn are far more ethereal. You probably feel like you got something out of your trip, but the value is certainly not legible.
Contemporary society is fixated on legibility. As I wrote in “The Upside of Legibility,”: “social media made popularity legible.”
Even frequent travelers—people who should be the MOST able to understand the inherent value of their experiences—will sometimes resort to quantifying their trips with whatever legible metrics they can imagine. Some jetsetters compete to visit as many countries as possible. Asking “does it count if you don’t leave the airport?” is a valid question if you are trying to quantify a legible metric of travel. That question, though, is nonsensical for anyone who really cares about the illegible experience of visiting those countries.
The problem is not legibility per se, but rather our obsession with focusing on legible goals at the exclusion of illegible ones.
We search under the lamp light for our missing wallet, not because we dropped it there, but because it’s easier to see. We think that what matters is what we can measure, rather than focusing on what matters—regardless of if it can be measured.
Performance marketing is far more legible than traditional brand marketing. One agency can be quantifiably better than another, based on which agency obtained the lower costs per acquisition. On the other hand, evaluating the quality of creative agencies is much harder—even after their projects have been completed.
When CEOs or boards ask me for advice about hiring new CMOs, they inevitably say they want someone with a mastery of performance marketing AND brand marketing. If pushed, though, they ALWAYS declare that performance marketing skills are more important.
Why does this happen? I think boards like the clarity of knowing whether (or not) the CMO delivered on their performance marketing goals. It is much harder to know if the brand marketer was worth what you paid them.
Even within performance marketing, most marketers tend to err on the side of legibility. One of my earliest Marketing BS essays (“Presidential Email Subject Lines”) looked at metrics for email campaigns. When you want to improve email open rates, the legible part of the problem involves A/B testing subject lines. The illegible part of the problem asks, “how can we improve our email content so that more people want to open the message?”
Short-term customer acquisition is legible.
Long-term price sensitivity is illegible.
As a result, we put a lot of focus on direct response ads that drive immediate subscriptions—or even worse, discounting! We give far less attention to long-term brand-building efforts that minimize the impact of price as a factor in a user’s decisions.
Last night at the dinner table, I asked my kids, “what was the most interesting thing you learned at school today?” As you might imagine, I had to wait a long time until they eventually shared some ideas. All their examples were very concrete, legible things: “I learned how to spell the word “because”” and “I learned how to make a dream catcher.”
We know the most important things that young people learn in school are the soft skills: concepts like “the importance of hard work,” “how to respect other people,” and “learning how to learn.” Of course, none of those ideas are particularly legible, so we end up with rubrics that evaluate how well a student can solve differential equations. To be clear, I’m not against solving differential equations—I love differential equations! But if I look back on my math classes, I think the most important lessons about differential equations taught me “how to learn to love them” rather than “how to learn to solve them.”
A hundred years ago, companies hired people based on their potential ability to perform the job duties. That hiring process was highly illegible, and often led to discrimination and nepotism (if you don’t know how to measure which candidates might perform the best, then why not hire your cousin?). Over time, we have taken many steps to make the education and job training world far more legible. That shift has reduced corruption, but it has also incentivized people to pursue legible activities rather than valuable experiences. The wage premium for doing three-and-a-half years of college is minimal. The wage premium for completing college is enormous. The stereotypical college experience offers illegible benefits, but the degree itself is legible. As a result, many students take “easy” courses to get higher grades and graduate with less effort. They are essentially trading decreased illegible experiences in favor of increased legible ones.
The focus on illegible metrics over legible knowledge doesn’t end in graduate school. Andrew Timming, a professor of Human Resource Management at RMIT University, expanded on this idea in a post for Dire Ed:
Every year, the requirements for entry into academia, as well as for promotion once in, have noticeably gone up. Today’s PhD students have multiple publications in the world’s leading journals, and even they struggle to find a tenure-track position.
In theory, a “good” PhD communicates a better understanding of the world. In practice, though, a “better understanding of the world” is illegible, so many PhD students pursue research that will yield legible metrics—like publications. You can quantify the number of publications. You can quantify the number of publications in “top” journals. And you can—of course—identify the “top” journals because they have developed legible ways to proclaim their importance.
Which university is the “best”? Given the multitude of factors that shape a post-secondary experience, identifying the best institutions is clearly an illegible problem. Or at least it was, until publications like US Newsand World Report began ranking schools based on quantifiable metrics: things like SAT scores for incoming students, the publication output of professors, the average size of classes, etc. Prospective students (and their parents!) now view university rankings in legible terms.
But greater legibility has incentivized post-secondary institutions to optimize their scores for the relevant metrics, sometimes at the cost of their academic integrity. For instance, Harvard has been accused of encouraging non-competitive students to apply for admission—and then rejecting them. That strategy seems inefficient and counter-productive, until you discover that “difficulty of gaining admission” is an important metric for ranking the quality of schools.
(In a previous essay, I wrote about the ROI on top colleges).
In the classic American sitcom Happy Days, just how “cool” was Fonzie? Without a doubt, he was the coolest character on the show, but can you quantify his coolness? Was he 20% cooler than Richie Cunningham? Or twice as cool? Maybe even 10 times cooler? What does quantifying coolness even mean?
Status is a real thing, but it’s (usually) an illegible thing.
Rob Henderson publishes a newsletter about social dynamics; in a recent issue (sorry, no link), he wrote about the importance of “status illegibility”:
In short, it [status illegibility] means most people in a social group do not know exactly how they compare against others in the group. Their social rank is unknown. This is crucial for holding the group together:
If your status is clear, and the status of the club is clear (by definition, the average status of all its current members) then either your status is higher, in which case the club will want you, but you won’t want to join, or your status is lower, in which case the opposite is true. If status were precisely known all around, then the only case that allows somebody to join a club is if their status exactly matches the average of the club. The probability of this happening is vanishingly small, even if status could be measured accurately and quantitatively. Worse, this benefits neither joiner or club.
This is why the debates about IQ, the SAT, and the GRE are so contentious. Less controversial, though, are grades, letters of recommendation, and personal statements.
Henderson argues that status illegibility is important, or even essential, for small group dynamics. In the workplace, much of status is legible, but even the boss may want to downplay her status in order to socialize with the team after work. Of course, we all know the “real fun” begins after the boss leaves—when the status of the remaining group is much less legible.
Perhaps one of the reasons that social media is so disliked among a certain class of people is that the platforms make status far more legible. We don’t know how much cooler The Fonz is than Richie, but we know exactly how many more followers Lady Gaga has over Jordan Peterson (84.2 million versus 2.3 million).
The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell’s iconic book about trends and critical masses, convinced many companies to find cool “Mavens” who would spread the word about their products. Remember, though, that The Tipping Point was published in the year 2000—four years before Mark Zuckerburg started college. Even if you believed Gladwell’s theories, finding cool people was HARD. And how could a company know which mavens were the hippest trendsetters? And how much should a company pay a person to “be cool”?
In the social media era, we’ve abandoned the term “mavens” and adopted the idea of “influencers.” Companies can gauge any individual person’s status on any given platform.
Some marketers argue that “total number of followers” isn’t as useful a metric as “engagement rate,” but those are arguments about HOW to quantify the impact of an influencer. No one is disputing that status can be quantified and analyzed.
Bringing legibility to “coolness” may hurt small group relationships, but it also transforms Gladwell’s ideas from a side project for the branding team into a major performance-marketing channel. Today’s young people no longer aspire for the illegible coolness of characters like Fonzie. Instead, people understand that coolness is an input for monetizing status—so they pursue the legible metrics to attain, like adding engaged followers on social media.
In Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, Chris Arnade writes about inequality and poverty:
We primarily valued what we could measure, and that meant material wealth. The things that couldn’t be easily measured—community, dignity, faith, happiness—were largely ignored…It didn’t occur to us that what we valued—getting more education and owning more stuff—wasn’t’ what everyone else wanted…We have created a society that is damningly unequal, not just economically but socially.
(Hat tip again to Rob Henderson for this reference)
The downside of legibility is that we overvalue stuff we can measure.
This is true in marketing, and—for many of us—it is true in life.
Saying “money doesn’t buy happiness” sounds hokey (in part because it’s wrong; money can buy a lot of things that make you happier). But here’s an idea that IS true: many things that provide a great deal of happiness in life are illegible.
I know exactly how much money I made last year, but I have no idea how to quantify the value of bedtime conversations with my kids. One thing is legible, and the other is illegible. And while I can’t quantify the difference between the two things, I can tell you that it’s the illegible life experiences that I will look back upon when lying in that proverbial hospital bed.
Keep it simple,
Edward Nevraumont is a Senior Advisor with Warburg Pincus. The former CMO of General Assembly and A Place for Mom, Edward previously worked at Expedia and McKinsey & Company. For more information, including details about his latest book, check out Marketing BS.