How the consultant’s 2×2 matrix helps your marketing thinking change

If there’s one tool we overlook more often than not due to overuse, it’s the simple, humble 2×2 matrix. This business strategy tool is badly overused, from publications and speeches to every case study you’ve ever had in business school. Every major consulting firm on the planet has thousands of these laying around. It’s trite. It’s cliche. And yet… the reason why it’s so overused is because it works so remarkably well at doing two things.

In business, we tend to have two core blind spots when we’re trying to solve a problem. The first blind spot is a tendency towards binary thinking. What’s the solution to this problem? What’s the answer to this question? Should I do more of X or more of Y? When’s the best time to post on Instagram? These are all questions that hint at binary thinking, when the answer may not be binary.

The simple 2×2 matrix helps to get you thinking differently by breaking you of the habit of assuming there is just one answer when there may be a spectrum of answers. There may not be a best time to post on Instagram, but a series of them. Your choice may not be X or Y, but a little bit of X and a little bit more of Y.

Here’s a simple, facetious example. Rather than asking yourself or your significant other where to have dinner (and the inevitable “I don’t know, what do you want?” debate), put your choices in a 2×2 matrix based on proximity and price. Now it’s not a binary question, but a question of spectrum:

2x2 examples.001

The second blind spot is a tendency towards one-dimensional thinking. We focus, for example, on website visitors or Twitter followers or Facebook Likes. We focus on ROI or net revenue or daily downloads, and we look at a metric often to the exclusion of other related metrics that can help give additional context.

The simple 2×2 matrix expands your mind a little bit by asking you what related metrics you can examine. What else might impact that metric? Or, how would you categorize those two metrics together to draw meaningful conclusions?

Here’s an example using two related metrics from Google Analytics (or any web analytics). Instead of just wondering about the ratio of new vs. returning visitors, categorize them as low or high:

2x2 examples.002

By laying out these two metrics and the relationships they have to each other, we can suddenly start to glean insights from the data that we have, and even hint at what potential solutions we might pursue to change one or more of the metrics.

Just because a tool is overused doesn’t mean it’s bad at what it does; its overuse may indicate that it should factor prominently in your own work. Keep the humble 2×2 matrix handy, and the next time you’re stuck looking at a problem from one dimension or in a binary way, bring it out and see if it expands your thinking.

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Why Facebook’s Emotional Testing Isn’t Just A/B Testing


Much ink has rightly been spilled about the revelation that Facebook wanted to judge whether emotional states were affected and contagious in their most recent research on 600,000+ people. You can read more of the details here.

On social media, reactions have been mixed, from people calling it an outrage to people saying, “What’s the big deal, it’s just A/B testing, get over it”. This latter point is one worth digging into. A/B testing normally is used to optimize conversions and provide a way of understanding how your content performs. What’s different about what Facebook was doing deals more with professional ethics in research. As both Tom Webster and I have pointed out, many organizations in the research space have codes of ethics that give researchers guidelines about what they should and should not do. Here’s one from AAPOR, the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers, from section I A:

1. We shall avoid practices or methods that may harm, endanger, humiliate, or seriously mislead survey respondents or prospective respondents.

2. We shall respect respondents’ desires, when expressed, not to answer specific survey questions or provide other information to the researcher. We shall be responsive to their questions about how their contact information was secured.

3. Participation in surveys and other forms of public opinion research is voluntary, except for the decennial census and a few other government surveys as specified by law. We shall provide all persons selected for inclusion with a description of the research study sufficient to permit them to make an informed and free decision about their participation. We shall make no false or misleading claims as to a study’s sponsorship or purpose, and we shall provide truthful answers to direct questions about the research. If disclosure could substantially bias responses or endanger interviewers, it is sufficient to indicate that some information cannot be revealed or will not be revealed until the study is concluded.

Where Facebook fell down is on points 1 and 3. On point 3, yes, the Terms of Service permit them to legally do anything they want to their data and their users, but there’s a difference between implied consent buried in the Terms of Service and informed participation in a research study. All Facebook had to do would have been to put up a little header at the top of the News Feed to say, “Facebook would like you to participate in an emotional research study (click here for details), are you willing to participate? If so, click the Like button on this banner.”

The biggest part where Facebook fell down was on point 1. The difference between A/B testing the conversion rate of your website and intentionally altering peoples’ emotions positively or negatively is the impact of the potential outcome. If I succeed in manipulating your behavior to get you to buy X% more stuff, there’s moderate to low risk of me causing serious permanent harm to your life beyond financial impact. If I succeed in manipulating your emotions to make you sad and depressed, there’s a certain percentage of people – small, but non-zero – who will amplify that to the extreme of harming themselves or others.

That’s the difference between regular A/B testing and what Facebook’s experiment did wrong. I would wager a class action lawsuit will be on its way in no short order, and it’s deserved for an ethics violation that has had realistic potential to cause serious harm to participants of the study.

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Pain tolerance and marketing methods

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One of the often-quoted sales adages is that people make a change when the pain of the same situation exceeds the pain of change, of doing something different. The thing is, as with individuals, organizations have different levels of pain tolerance when it comes to making change.

Some organizations tolerate only a little pain before they’re willing to make a change, while other organizations can tolerate absurd amount of pain before finally deciding that enough is enough and switch things up.

Marketing to organizations with a low tolerance for pain is easy, but the flipside is that they are just as likely to abandon you if you cause any pain whatsoever. At the first trouble ticket that goes unanswered or the first crisis in the relationship, they are likely to flee.

Marketing to organizations with a high tolerance for pain means that getting them to switch and change is very difficult, but they are also likely to stick with you in times of trouble or difficulty. They’ll tolerate many more errors.

So how do you identify an organization’s pain tolerance levels? From the outside, you can’t beyond very perfunctory surface measures. Do a reputation search of the organization on sites like GlassDoor to see what kinds of complaints (because almost all of the reviews of any company are complaints) people have. If complaints are about constant change, then you know you have an organization with low tolerance for pain. If complaints are about stubbornness and refusal to change or adapt, then you likely have an organization with a high tolerance for pain. That should give you insight into what kind of business relationship you’ll have with that company.

The next logical part of this from a marketing perspective is to reduce the pain of change. You can’t adjust an organization’s pain tolerance levels, but the less friction and pain there is to change, the easier it will be to get a prospective customer to make a change. Use every technology at your disposal to ease the pains of change. Give free trials or a certain dollar amount off at the beginning of a relationship.

For complex sales, use transition processes to assist in change. For example, if you’re a real estate agent selling houses, throw in the cost of movers into the sale to ease that change. If you’re a SaaS business, make the best data importer ever to make transition to your service seamless. If you’re a burger and fries joint, have a kids eat free night or other transitional deal.

Whatever you do, make change as painless as possible. The lower the pain you cause, the lower you can do the limbo under a prospective customer’s pain tolerance levels.

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