Experience Paradox

There has been a surge of industry commentary recently encouraging people to share case studies and research in areas like search, video and social media marketing – I’m guilty of pestering hundreds of marketers myself. The reason is because those of us asking know that we only improve in one of two ways: 1) personal experience 2) shared experience. When we ask for case studies and research in marketing the point is to speed experience across the whole market by sharing.

Frustratingly, very few people want to share what they’ve learnt openly, restricting overall market knowledge and in the long term, potentially their own knowledge as a result. An individual withholding lessons learnt maintains a competitive advantage initially but limits an overall community’s progress, slowing the community’s learning, and in turn slowing the further learning of the individual. This is the experience paradox. Often the result is slow growth or a single market leading monopoly.

To give away your experience is to give away your business. Or is it? The instant after you share, you personally are always worse off while the people you shared with are better off. This is clear-cut if you only think about the present and you ignore the nature of humans. By sharing with a community it’s more likely others will share too – particularly if you agree beforehand – and suddenly that particular community, and its members, is in a much stronger position.

Apply this to marketing and the bigger picture is that the discipline that shares the most experience becomes stronger overall. Ultimately the majority of individuals in that sector will increase their own share of experience.

If one person doesn’t pull their weight, it falls apart. Clay Shirky calls this dilemma ‘the tragedy of the commons’, first described by Garrett Hardin. Whereby those in a community whom all contribute equally benefit, but when one person doesn’t contribute that individual becomes better off to the detriment of the wider group. The end result is that no one contributes. In this situation, the sectors that don’t share are worse off – a major failing of that community and a competitive disadvantage for everyone in that sector.

So, which marketing disciplines are suffering from the tragedy of the commons? Probably the ones that need to share the most like video, social media etc. Other disciplines like traditional marketing and even online search and display have had decades to tease experience out of the market to piece together a solid business case from various scraps. If the emerging marketing disciplines want to compete with the established disciplines, they need to collectively become equally as proven extremely quickly. A feat only possible through sharing, which is arguably easier now we have the internet.

To break the experience paradox and to prevent the tragedy of the commons in marketing, people tend to need incentives like awards or press coverage to share what they’ve learnt. The real incentive should surely be growth, at least until a discipline is fully established. Share within your particular marketing discipline and that community will grow, growing your share in turn.

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