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What is ‘Spray and Pray Marketing’ and why is it a problem?

Have you ever read the marketing section of your board pack month after month, read a long description of activities, but been unimpressed by the lack of any meaningful change in lead generation?


You may be observing ‘Spray and Pray Marketing’ - a phrase that I find myself using to describe an approach to marketing that I think is generally to be avoided. As tends to be the case with English idiom, we rarely stop and think about the deeper meaning of such phrases and sitting on a train recently I tried to break it down and give it a proper definition that might be helpful to non-marketers.


The phrase itself I believe has militaristic origins, referring to the use of automatic weapons without any sense of trying to aim, in the hope that at least one bullet hits the target. That feels like a good analogy for my understanding of ‘Spray and Pray Marketing’ but let’s take it apart.


The ‘Spray’


This refers to marketers running a wide range of different activities, poorly targeted, poorly coordinated, with limited depth (unless you have an unlimited marketing budget).


This is a problem because the ‘costs’ (time & money) to set up each individual marketing activity are often understated, as are the frictions introduced by task switching and greater complexity (e.g., creative/content across multiple channels, formats etc).


To be clear, this is not about avoiding well-co-ordinated, multi-channel campaigns, but rather avoiding trying ‘a little bit of everything’.



The “Pray”


This refers to the lack of data to underpin the choice of marketing activities, and to the lack of robust measurement of outcomes. This is the big difference to the militaristic origins of the phrase – as well as not aiming very well, the ‘Spray and Pray’ marketer doesn’t even know if they hit the target at the end of the day.


I also think about this as referring to situations where there is a suboptimal or disjointed customer journey that we expect prospects to go on e.g., lots of tube ads but only a ‘contact us’ form on the website – our marketing could be effective in driving demand, but we have no hope of achieving conversions.


What is the problem with this approach?


There are some situations where a ‘Spray’ approach might be acceptable – for example for a brand-new business that wishes to test & learn, or for a business entering a new category. But in my opinion, the ‘Pray’ aspect of this approach is to be avoided altogether!


The consequence of ‘Spray and Pray’ is that our marketing activities are shallow (we just attend one trade show rather than a series, send just one direct mailshot, or only let digital ads run for a week) and we don’t have reliable measurement, so don’t really learn whether it works or not.


It can quickly become a vicious cycle of constantly repeating the same activities in the hope that something might be different. As marketers we should aspire to get the right message, to the right people, at the right time, in the right medium. When we ‘Spray and Pray’ we are certain to get at least one of these wrong and potentially all of them!


So why does it happen?


There are some basic human factors at play in many cases. Marketers can feel a huge pressure to show ‘activity’ to their Management team colleagues – a new campaign, media coverage, ads visible online. Given the short average tenure of marketing leaders, the pressure of the sword of Damocles can lead to activity at the expense of thinking through the strategy and targeting that I’ve described.


However, I think that the most common reason for this approach to marketing is that lack of a robust approach to measurement, that the marketer uses to make decisions. Perhaps even deeper than that a lack of commerciality. It is ultimately bad business to try multiple different marketing activities and have no idea which ones have worked.


Most successful businesses I’ve worked with do just 2 or 3 things expertly – and that expertise can come from spending a long time testing and learning in each area, building institutional knowledge and individual skills.


I’d recommend asking your marketing leader this one question to start testing this in your business. You can tell when you are doing ‘Spray and Pray’ when there isn’t an evidence-based hypothesis behind activities, when your small marketing team seems to be doing a hundred different things rather than 2 or 3.


If you’d like to discuss how to refine your marketing strategy, please Contact Me.


All views expressed in this post are the author's own and should not be relied upon for any reason. Clearly.

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