It’s been a strange time to be in the business of “expertise.”

Expertise is built over time, and is developed from front-row exposure to a lot of situations. Sometimes a test wins, sometimes it loses, but you always learn something you can apply in the future.

Except when it comes to marketing during a pandemic and global turmoil.

To be brutally honest and completely vulnerable here, there have been many moments during the last four months when I’ve been at a loss for words. I’ve said, “I don’t know” more times than I can count, because that was the truth. If I had said with absolute confidence how a campaign would work, or how a retention effort would perform, or if a subject line would get an email opened, I would have been doing it with fingers crossed behind my back.

Consumer behavior has been tossed in the tumbler.

History has taught us that “media events” can negatively impact campaigns. If you’re in the mail or in the inbox at the same time as a story that’s consuming your prospect’s attention, you are not likely to see the same results as you have in the past. Makes sense.

Conversely, if you get something in the hands of someone when they are home, or out of a normal mail/email pattern, you are likely to do better. That makes sense, too.

In the last four months, we’ve had both those situations. So which one is more effective?

We don’t know.

Well, we do, to a degree. We study response results and watch campaigns because we are disciplined direct response marketers. But the story the results are telling these days are skewed.

Some marketing initiatives and campaigns are doing really, really well. More people are shopping for things like insurance (when you’re home and have time, it’s been a good time to shop for a better deal). People are taking up hobbies, so enthusiast offers are over-performing. Organizations supporting front-line healthcare workers are seeing record rates of enrollment.

That’s great, right? Well … Maybe?

As the farmers in my background would say, “make hay while the sun shines.” So if you’re in a business that is getting attention and results right now, go for it. Just keep an eye out for a thunderstorm.

We’ll be putting big asterisks next to the results from 2020. And we won’t be using them to forecast 2021, because if we’re lucky, we won’t have the same consumer environment we have today.

So what does someone who considers themselves an “expert” do these days?

For one thing, write. Writing is cathartic. It’s a way to make sense of the moment, and to chronicle for the future. (By the way, if you’ve been reading what MCA is publishing—thank you!)

For another, listen. Consumers are telling us something that we’ll want to take with us into the next reality. They are telling us to never lose our humanity in marketing. To make sure the offer makes sense IN ANY ENVIRONMENT. To prioritize authenticity over hyperbole. In other words, be good humans, not automated, tone-deaf marketers.

And third, breathe. Our expertise hasn’t gone anywhere. We still know to set up a test, think like a prospect, craft a survey that gets at the heart of the matter, and much more. I know who on my team of experts to ask when I am unsure. We know how to find a path through this confusing and uncharted landscape to prioritize testing that will deliver meaningful results. We just don’t know what those results will be, because the rear-view mirror to historical performance is really fogged up right now.

Look for clues that this is actually liberating, not a limitation.

As we began to realize that things were changing—fast—I was concerned about not knowing the answer. After all, that’s what clients expect, right?

But as we’ve progressed to this point, there is a sense of lightness. We’ve been liberated from having to “know” and we need to learn to be comfortable with “I DON’T know.”

Because this is when we really discover that expertise isn’t about making a statement of fact (based on past experience and results). It’s truly about knowing how to set up the test, and be open to new ways of authentic persuasion. I’m ok not knowing everything, because of what I DO know.

Good client/expert partnerships aren’t based on the client simply believing what the expert says. They are based on honesty, vulnerability, and putting the prospect or the member first. They are about giving each other room to be wrong (for the right reasons), or to agree to disagree about the priorities or the directions because you don’t know what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes.

I’m incredibly grateful for our clients and the way we’ve evolved during this crazy time. They have understood when sometimes the answer is “I don’t know,” and we’ve then worked it out together. I’m grateful for the campaigns that have been successful, and I’m even grateful for the ones that sound more like crickets than roars because we learn from that too (thank goodness for controlled, risk-managed testing).

So go ahead. Say “I don’t know. But I’m willing to listen.”

Thanks for reading.