Marketers Beware: The Narrative Fallacy

Luck or Science?

Your Results May Be As Much Luck As Science

In his book “The Black Swan” Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the term the “Narrative Fallacy“.  Taleb asserts that we humans strive for convenient, packaged explanations for even the most complex of phenomenon.  We carefully craft thoughtful, logical and convincing reasons for why things happen the way they do.  These often sound GREAT, and sometimes they are actually dead-on accurate.  Unfortunately, they often are coincidental to the true drivers of the outcomes.  Sometimes these influences are actually random events, or perhaps just dumb luck.  Neither makes for a good “story”.

This poses a dilemma for marketers.  Your job is to determine the “secret sauce” that will influence behavior in the direction you desire.  You must be able to establish cause and effect in order to grow your influence and expand your initiatives.  The Narrative Fallacy can be a real wrench in the works to what seemed like marketing nirvana.   “Do we actually have to worry about what REALLY drives behavior, and not just exhort our narratives that sound so impressive?”  Yes, Sparky you do.

Imagine this hypothetical scenario.  You are a marketer with a beverage company that sells a new sparkling water.  You target a barrage of marketing activities in your target city of Nashville Tennessee.  You notice a 17% increase in sales that aligns with your Nashville campaign.  You are elated!  Kudos to the team for driving a big lift in a short window of time.  Pride and excitement abound at your Seattle office.   But wait . . .  Coincidently, right at the time of your campaign Nashville had a record high heatwave.  ALL  beverage sales in Nashville got a similar lift as a result.  Better slow down on the high fives.

I made this example very simple and obvious.  Chances are you would notice something as conspicuous as a record heat wave as a beverage marketer.  But often the drivers of outcomes are subtle – and you really have to mine them via testing various assumptions.  When it comes to Websites, it is fairly straightforward with testing tools from providers like Google.  For non-Web marketing activities, the mining is more challenging.  You have to do the work.

The harsh reality is you will have to go back to the familiar playbook.  Test, observe, adjust, re-test, observe . . . .  Hard to imagine a world in which testing is not core to what a marketer does.