There is a seismic shift occurring in marketing as startups, for various reasons, are forced to discover new ways to grow their user bases.

I’d rather not bore you with another philosophical rant about how everything is changing (even though it is), so instead, I'll share with you one of the underlying insights that is at the core of this new marketing ethos, micro-failures.

In the past, a new marketing push was equivalent to game day, there was massive preparation. The team would diagram plays, practice the strategy, talk about the plan, and quite literally obsess over the whole ordeal.

This was necessary because substantial resources were being thrown at these endeavors, and the details mattered because you couldn’t take a mulligan. The marketing push in question might be an ad buy, bringing an affiliate system online, orchestrating a social media campaign, or a number of other possibilities.

We used to have this same mentality with products, and it was called waterfall development. Everyone on the team would gear up for the big 'magical' 2.0 release of the product (or whatever number they were on), and it was, again, obsessed over.

We now realize that agile development, which allows for quick, ongoing, non-dramatic, software updates, is a better method for developing many applications. Well, guess what, it’s a better framework for marketing too.

Marketing is now agile

  • Instead of having a board meeting that decides to allocate $10,000 to AdWords, why not spend $250 on AdWords (without asking anyone), and see what happens?
  • Instead of spending three months building and implementing an affiliate solution, why not sign up for a cheap web app that has the core functionality you need, hand recruit five affiliates, and see what happens?
  • Instead of talking for a week about the pros and cons of a certain social media campaign, why not just start it today, and see what happens?

But won’t this lack of preparation lead to failure? Yes. But you’re missing the point. Most marketing campaigns that were discussed ad nauseam also failed.

Spending more time and money didn’t ensure their success, it just ensured that you were going to spend more time and money. Agile experiments allow you to discover what you would have most likely found out anyway, just in a more timely manner.

The history of marketing is one of macro-failures, but the future belongs to those who embrace micro-failures.

Consider the idea of a marketing 'at-bat.' This is the amount of times you get to try a new marketing idea, much like how many times a baseball player gets to face a pitcher.

If startup A cycles through four marketing at-bats every year (they try four new marketing ideas), while startup B cycles through 24 marketing at-bats every year (they get to try 24 marketing ideas), which startup will have a higher likelihood of finding a scaleable growth channel for their company?

We’ve spent so long optimizing our marketing for execution, we didn’t realize that we should actually be optimizing for ignorance. If we find a marketing strategy that works we can always refine our execution when appropriate, but that was never the real problem.

It’s finding a strategy that works at all (our ignorance) that should have been solved for.

Micro-failures are the future of marketing because they solve for ignorance, not execution.

Zack Onisko, one of the founding members of BranchOut, and the previous head of their growth team, was able to grow BranchOut by 500% in 90 days (to over 30m users), and here is what he said :

One of the things we decided early on, and we actually got a lot of pushback internally…was to to make sure the [growth] team could work autonomously from all the product features that we wanted to build on the main product road map. [The growth team] needed to release faster…we needed to release basically on a daily basis…we aimed to move the needle everyday."

(You can watch the video of this interview here.)

In case you're counting, Zack was ambitiously going for 365 marketing at-bats a year. If you are currently working in a startup, here is an action plan to get more at-bats:

1. Take inventory of internal skills

Your startup is completely unique (yes, like a snowflake). Therefore, your team is going to have skills in certain areas and lack them in other areas.

Do you have someone with experience leading a local meetup? Do you have someone who is comfortable writing an ebook? Do you have someone who is awesome at email marketing?

Whatever skills and experiences your team has should inform the list you're getting ready to make.

2. Keep a stack-ranked list of marketing ideas

Every marketing idea you get should go into a simple to-do list that is always ordered according to which ideas you think will work based on the skills you uncovered in the first step.

If you keep a list like this then you’ll avoid marketing downtime (where you just stare at the screen, trying to will yourself to come up with a brilliant marketing ploy).

The list will be there waiting for you. Remember, everything on this list doesn’t have to be the product of genius. That’s why it’s stack-ranked. The best stuff will always be at the top so you have the freedom to put down almost any idea you have.

3. Do something on the list at least once a week

If you try something off the list once a week then you’ll essentially have 52 at-bats in a year. That’s 52 chances to find something that works, which you can then refine. That’s 52 chances to discover how people want to find out about your product.

While others startups are stuck in paralysis by analysis, you’ll be learning by doing. It’s important that you brace yourself for failure (even if it’s micro-failure) because the vast majority of things you try will not work.

Luckily, businesses are made because a few things did work, not because a lot of things didn’t.

Bronson Taylor

Published 16 September, 2013 by Bronson Taylor

Bronson Taylor is Co-founder/Host, Growth Hacker TV and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect on Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus. 

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Comments (5)


Richard Hussey

Isn't the 'new' concept of micro failures the same principle as Scientific Advertising developed in the early 20th century? Do people really blow a 10k Adwords budget without testing different approaches first with smaller budgets?

almost 5 years ago

Bronson Taylor

Bronson Taylor, Co-founder/Host, Growth Hacker TV at Growth Hacker TV


Great question! In the article I'm really trying to emphasize the speed of failure, and the ultimate idea of marketing "at-bats," more than the quantification of results (though I'm a proponent of both).

To use the AdWords example. While it is true that many people will test with a smaller budget, the question is, will they will still debate for a week whether they should try a small budget at all, thereby forfeiting the gains of speed.

Science + Speed = Awesome.

almost 5 years ago

Sidney Blank

Sidney Blank, Partner at MBLM

With regard to the degree of obsession that takes place, for larger clients this article is definitely on target. It's hard to argue against the value of the big splash versus the slow incremental climb. If you persevere the numbers will back you up in the end but many remain focused on the quick win – to use a bit of tired jargon.

almost 5 years ago



Micro-Failures - I love it.

Speed is of utmost essence in today's fast changing world. Low cost experiments in real life situations teaches one much more than simulated high-cost researches.

Most start-ups I believe resort to this approach for 2 reasons
1) Limited financial resources
2) Limited intellect resources

I therefore agree that micro-failures should be the approach to marketing success as we go forward.

almost 5 years ago


Stuart Davenport

The principle I agree with. I also believe it applies to businesses that are not start ups but should be acting like one.

When I think about practicalities in some areas I have some questions. We bet heavily on experiential marketing In our business) - creating large scale events that engage and WOW people.

I can see how you can scale down an adwords campaign for testing but some marketing events need scale to have any impact at all and therefore need/require commitment and attention to detail from the outset ?

almost 5 years ago

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