Shane Atchison and Jason Burby: An interview by Bob Morris

AtchisonAs CEO of POSSIBLE, Shane Atchison leads the the digital agency’s long-term strategic vision of working with leading financial service organizations, consumer brands, start-ups, nonprofits, and community-based organizations, helping each realize the potential of the Internet and its impact on their business. He continues his advocacy for creating meaningful, effective visitor-centric digital strategies through media and speaking engagements.


As President of the Americas Region for POSSIBLE, Jason Burby is responsible for leading the long-term stability and growth of the region. Jason has 20+ years experience in digital strategy. He is a long-time advocate of using data to inform digital strategies to help clients attract, convert and retain customers. He supports our clients and employees in driving new engagements and delivering great work that works.

Shane has co-authored two books with Jason: Actionable Web Analytics: Using Data to Make Smart Business Decisions (published by Sybex (May 2007) and Does it Work?: 10 Principles for Delivering True Business Value in Digital Marketing (published by McGraw-Hill (April 2015).

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Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while Does It Work? Please explain.

Burby: There were two recurrent observations that we heard throughout various studies and interviews – across regions and industries, marketers are struggling to consistently define success foe all initiatives up front. They all acknowledged the importance of defining goals and targets, but view said their companies/departments did it on a truly consistent basis.

The second big finding surprise was that in the analysis of some of the most awarded campaigns in the last few years that they didn’t have an impact on what they were clearly trying to accomplish. The best example of that is the fact that the Dumb Ways to Die train safety campaign in Melbourne, Australia that took of virally didn’t impact train safety at all…

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Burby: From a structural standpoint, it looks very similar to our original plan. But writing a book is about learning what you truly and deeply think about an issue. We started with eight principles, it ballooned up at one point to 13, spent most of the process at nine, and eventually became an even 10. Definitely the book helped us really blow out some ideas that we had on a cocktail napkin. How data can inspire creativity was a big one.

The interviews we conducted with thought leaders around the world as well as the study we commissioned with Forrester helped us shape and tune some of the thinking and principles. We also leveraged a number of POSSIBLE’s 1,300+ staff from around the world based on what they see with clients, their past experience at agencies and working with brands. It would have been disappointing if our views or stories didn’t change a bit as we worked through all the conversations and research…

Morris: How did the two of you work out the division of labor while writing the book?

Burby: It’s a great question, but having worked together for 15+ years we have faced this in a number of different areas of our business. It typically comes down to what each of us is most passionate about. While we are both big believers in the importance of culture leading to success or failure it is something Shane has written and spoken about extensively.

So in that case, he takes the lead on the general concepts for that principle and then we divide those concepts out to each to put our own viewpoints in place. Then we actively try to play devil’s advocate to make sure we are addressing all sides. And most importantly, we share our thinking and ideas with a number of others who often help us add more flavor and examples to the formulation process.

Morris: In your opinion, what are the defining characteristics of the reader who will derive the greatest benefit from reading Does It Work?

I truly believe that the principles in Does it Work? can be applied by people at both small and enterprise-size companies. While a lot of it is tied to marketing and consumer experiences, most of the principles can apply to a number of other aspects of business. It will be most interesting and applicable to people that are really looking to help their company and others drive change by breaking out of the typical business cycle.

Morris: There are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For those who have not as yet read the book, please respo0nd to questions evoke by each of these passages. First, the Does It Work? philosophy (Pages 10-18) What are the core tenets of this philosophy?

Atchison: At its core, Does it Work? involves four steps:

1. We set goals and targets based on what success looks like for our businesses as a whole and for every initiative.
2. We use data to inspire creativity and give us a better idea of how to achieve our goals.
3. We create great work and then measure what matters.
4, We are honest about the results and use them to learn and grow.

This seems simple and logical, but it’s difficult and scary for a lot of businesses—and hard to implement completely. That’s why we have ten principles to support those steps.

Morris: Goal setting (20-47) What are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind when engaged in this process? Why?

Burby: It’s all about making sure the goals are actually tied to business impact. This is an obvious point, but it’s easy to ignore. If you’re simply trying to move popular metrics, that’s not enough. You can’t just get more eyeballs, you have to get the right eyeballs and make sure your efforts are driving real business results.

Atchison: I think the most important point to remember is that goals are not just performance evaluators. They are strategic tools for understanding what works and, especially, what doesn’t. To achieve that, you have to look at the “variance to goal.” For example, let’s say you think you should make $100 off an initiative. Now imagine you get $99. Do you shoot the team? No. You missed by 1%. It’s fine. But let’s say you overshot and got $130. That’s a variance to goal of 30%. It’s huge. In that case, you have a learning opportunity. You can maybe figure out that something worked much better than you thought it would. And you can use that information to have better results in the future.

Morris: Alignment (48-79) What specifically must remain in alignment and what is the single biggest threat to doing that?

Burby: Our chapter on alignment is the longest, which may seem strange for a marketing book. But alignment is probably the most difficult and important task we face. If everyone doesn’t know what your goals are, and how they can contribute to them, you’re never going to get the results you want. The single biggest threat to alignment is thinking you are aligned when you’re not. A lot of companies set great goals, pass them around, and then forget about them. Alignment has to be an active, every day, every meeting activity.

Morris: Creativity and big ideas (92-97) In your opinion, what are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which generation of “big ideas” is most likely to thrive?

Atchison: Equality and diversity, but not must in the way most people talk about them. First, great ideas can come from anywhere, and you have to be ready to listen to everyone. No prima donnas allowed. Second, the more perspectives you have, the better. You want to have people from as many different backgrounds and skillsets as you can. That way, you have a really great discussion and clash of ideas—and many angles from which to solve a problem. Equality and diversity may seem like popular, obvious things to say, but they really work.

Morris: Digital talent (106-129) What unique challenges does digital talent pose to those who recruit it?

Atchison: Obviously, culture. It’s easy to find great people. It’s hard to keep them around. You have to provide an environment where people can learn and grow. But the most critical thing, we find, is that people today want to make a difference, both for the world as a whole and for their clients. They’re just not about pool tables and keg parties anymore (though those are fun too). A big strength of the Does it Work? philosophy is that it lets them know that they’ve done something that matters. That’s a big challenge today.

Morris: “Additional Thoughts” about creating a culture for unicorns (149-155) What are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind when creating a culture for unicorns?

Atchison: It’s more of a list of dos than don’ts. I’ve already touched on several of them but they include:

o Embrace a flat structure that welcomes ideas
o Listen to everyone’s ideas
o Enable people to learn and grow
o Allow trying new things and failure
o Empower them to make a real difference

Morris: Measurement (156-181) Of what is most important? If so, what and why?

Burby: We begin the book with two case studies about campaigns that tried to save lives. The one claimed success by whatever metrics seemed to support the idea that it was successful. The second, a brilliant campaign about cardiac arrest in Great Britain, instead looked at the actual number of lives it saved. Things aren’t always this clean, but whenever you do anything, you want to get the metric that gets you closest to the truth. What progress are you really making against your goals? What impact are you really having on your business.

Of course, it’s not always easy to tie certain actions to certain results. In those cases you often have to settle on relative metrics—something is better than nothing at all. Or you get creative with the way you build an initiative so that you can track effectiveness more accurately.

Morris: Relative-value modeling (182-205) How many stages are there in this process? Which seems to be most difficult to complete? Why?

Burby: RVM is not necessarily a process with steps, but an analytical methodology for understanding what’s working or not on your digital properties and beyond. It involves looking at digital properties and determining how much something is “worth” relative to other things on a screen. For an oversimplified example, let’s say you have a Learn More button on a page. We can track and analyze how often that results in a sale. A good relative model not only accounts for how much an action is worth, of course, but how frequently it occurs. So you may have a video that’s worth $10 every time it’s viewed, but if no one is finding it, you might want to make it more prominent.

RVM is a very powerful tool especially for making incremental improvements to a site and maximizing where you put your creative resources.

Morris: “A Culture of Optimization” (220-222) How to obtain buy-in while avoiding burn-out?

Burby: This is a great question. The big problem with optimization is that it works too well at first. Whenever we do an optimization engagement, we explain to our clients that there are always low-hanging fruit. A good UX person or copywriter can almost always see something on a page that can make a big difference fast. But down the line, optimization gets less sexy. You’re looking at a few percentage points of improvement for any test. In that case, you want to stress that optimization involves learning about your audience. Even if a test only bumps up revenue slightly, it may produce a learning that you can socialize across your organization. In that case, the effect on a brand can be huge, even if the narrow result is small. So we try to manage expectations at first to get things going.

Morris: “One Size Fits No One” (228-253) If your reader gets nothing else out of this material, what do you think is the most important point or insight?

Burby: That anyone can do targeting—and it’s not as complicated as it may seem. We’ve gotten huge lift for clients simply by varying content for new vs. returning visitors. It’s also really fun, because it’s so scientific. You form a hypothesis about your customers, run tests to see if it’s right, and learn from it.

Morris: “Framework for Innovation” (254-283) To what extent is this framework flexible and adaptable? Please explain.

Atchison: Our choice of the word “framework” is deliberate. It’s not a rigid set of steps. Every organization has different goals, opportunities, and abilities to pursue innovation. Our approach is to put it into a Does it Work? context. That means you have to set goals, align around objects, use data intelligently, and measure the results. You also have to be fearless and honest about your innovation efforts, just as you are about everything else. If your favorite pet project isn’t working, you have to let it go.

Morris: Digital marketing as actionable and measurable (304-307) How to recognize when it isn’t one or the other?

Atchison: That’s up to things like budget, capabilities, and organizational willingness to try something new. We might come up with a blowout creative idea, but if it’s out of scope or requires serious change at an organization, it won’t happen. You don’t want to waste resources on ideas that can’t become reality.

Burby: To add a thought: Anything is measureable to some degree, however the measurement may not be perfect. Having a little insight is always better than nothing.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Does it Work?, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Atchison: Does it Work? doesn’t care about size. We started out as entrepreneurs who founded a company with no revenue. Since then, we’ve been fortunate enough to work with much larger organizations, but the basic approach is the same. I think the most valuable part of the book for a small business is understanding the critical role that culture plays in building a winning team. We tend to look for gimmicks and shortcuts in building up businesses, but you have to establish and live the core cultural values that ensure long term success.

Burby: I agree with Shane on this, but I’d also add goals to the mix. Small businesses need strong goals just as much as large corporations. If you have a goal-oriented approach, and you align around goals, you’re much better off than if you’re not sure what you’re trying to accomplish.

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Shane and Jason cordially invite you to check out the resources at these websites:

Does It Work? link


Follow Shane with this LinkedIn Influencer link


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