Marketing Tools and the Bread Machine Problem

bread machine breadI’ve spent much of the last 10 years building tools that automate online marketing tasks. Early on, I had a grand vision of creating an application that would perfectly distribute marketing investment based on an advertiser’s ROI goals. But along the way, I met a few, very smart people who changed my thinking.

Before I get to them, let me introduce the bread machine problem. Bread machines are great, I’m told. You put a few ingredients in, press a button, and voila!, steaming hot bread comes out. Bread machine advocates will say, “no, it’s not as good as fresh bread from a bakery, but that’s not the point. It’s easy and beats bread that comes out of a bag from the grocery store.” I can’t argue with that.

As a designer of a different sort of appliance, I think I have an idea of what goes through the minds of bread machine designers.

If we just add these settings, people will have more control over the bread they make!

Yeah, but we are not building this for master chefs, it has to be dead simple for our market.

I’ve encountered that problem countless times when designing software. Too many knobs and levers and you’ve lost most of your market, too few and you are helping people achieve slightly better than mediocre results.

So, back to the people who changed my thinking. Each used software I had a hand in designing. First, came Teddie Cowell. He was the epitome of the power user, haranguing me weekly for features and always saying, “I don’t need documentation, just let me see the algorithm.” Then there was Tushar Balsara. His chant was, “API’s API’s API’s!” He used our tool, but was trying to plug it into his own vast and complex system for data analysis. Last was Brendan Kitts. He took our software, asked all the right questions, then built his own. Crafty bastard.

These are the kind of guys who, given a bread machine, will have it out on the table in days, with bits dissasembled and settings overridden. More importantly, these are the kind of guys who produce the very best results in online marketing – I know that because I saw what they were doing for their clients. They made me realize that trying to fully-automate marketing will always produce mediocre results. Building tools that are simple for the user will inevitably lead to the bread machine problem.

Marketing automation is hard because every business has different goals, and advertises in different media, and collects data through different means. On top of that, opportunities are always changing, with new ad products and marketing channels being introduced every day. In my experience, the best solutions usually entail smart hackers like Teddie, Tushar and Brendan, and cobbled together tools with some home-built stitching in between.

If you are a business, don’t trust a vendor that tells you their tool will manage it all for you. Look for the crafty hacker. Most of the time he or she can be found at an agency that also builds tools, or a tool builder that also provides agency services.

Bread photo credit: avlxyz

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