I’m a successful failure

by Tony Downing

At the gym, my trainer decided that I should do excessive amounts of weightlifting in a short period of time. Towards the end of the last set I couldn’t do it. My arms were screaming like a choir of feral cats. I stopped short of getting to the target number of lifts and dropped the dumbbells to the ground. “I hate failing.” “Perfect,” he said. “The idea is that you fail at the end. That means you have burnt up all the energy in your arms and completely pushed yourself to the limit. You have burnt up more fat and added more strength than if you hadn’t done this.” he advised me. “Great, so I’m a successful failure,” I said.

It got me thinking, how much do we hold back so we don’t fail? How good could we be if we push ourselves to the point of failure, learn our limits, and then get back up again and carry on with renewed knowledge and confidence? Failure can be a better teacher than success.  I am not advocating reckless actions and taking risks for the sake of it. But what would happen if we pushed ourselves further to find out if we have a good idea or initiative?

It’s ok to fail at the gym, it’s a safe place to fail in. Not too much is at stake. But what about advertising? Advertising can be costly and failure can be expensive. Is there a safe place to be a successful failure in advertising?


A history of failure to win

Claude Hopkins was one of the successful great grandfathers of advertising. He was a big advocate of experimental advertising. He would take his best performing advertising and beat it with incremental improvements. Claude called it Scientific Advertising. It was a process of success and failure. He risked failure in small amounts to create more successful and effective advertising. He said “It is not uncommon for a change in the headline to multiply returns from five to ten times over”. Sometimes changing a few words around in your headline can have a huge impact on the number of sales and conversions. You have to test a few different headlines until you find something that converts well.

What Claude was doing over 100 years ago is now called A/B Split Testing. This approach is a bit like an ad contest. You show half of your customer audience one ad and the other half a slightly different ad. You eliminate the worst performing ad and then introduce another ad to try and beat the hero. The process goes on until your best ad is difficult to beat. You can then take your winning ad to a wider audience with a larger budget, with confidence.

Your safe place to fail

Today, digital advertising is the perfect platform for developing powerful advertising messages. It allows us to take lots of small risks without losing too much money. We can test one headline, offer or message against another. For example, when we run Facebook and Google advertising campaigns we test safe headlines against more risky ones with the aim of getting more attention and better results. We test one benefit against another, one offer against another and so on. We keep trying new (sometimes risky) headlines until we beat the existing headlines. We measure success as the number of people who take our desired actions (conversions). A desired action could be filling out a form, clicking a button, making a phone call or completing a purchase online. You have to be ready to fail to succeed with this approach, but in the long run, you win.