By Jerry W. Thomas
Several years ago, Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of
Defense, spoke eloquently about Known Knowns, Known Unknowns, and the dreaded
Unknown Unknowns. Mr. Rumsfeld omitted one category, however, and that is
These four sets of simple word-pairs convey powerful
conceptual ideas with relevance to developing marketing and content plans and
strategies — as well as military
strategies. Strategic decisions based on Knowns — truth, facts, and evidence —
are far more likely to succeed than those based on hopes, wishes, and
Let’s take a look at these four sets of word-pairs as they
relate to publishing and marketing.
In a perfect world, Known Knowns would be facts and evidence
based on scientific research and scientific methods — like market research,
controlled experiments, actual test markets, product testing, advertising
testing, historical results, and reader records. Known Knowns would provide
reliable and valid facts and evidence that business, content, and decisions
could be based on.
However, most Known Knowns are not really Known Knowns. For
every one scientific fact in the publishing world, there must be at least 99
myths, half-truths, illusions, and wishes. Compared to 30 years ago, or 50
years ago, organizations are spending a smaller share of sales on scientific
research and scientific methods to answer strategy questions. Moreover,
marketing research budgets are increasingly fragmented as new technologies, new
tools, and new marketing fads drain resources away from core research spending.
Known Knowns is a small category of knowledge, and Known
Knowns is very likely a smaller category now than it was in the past.
These are questions and variables that we have no reliable
and valid data or information about, but of which we are fully aware. This is a
large category, especially if we are completely honest with ourselves about
what we really know and do not know. The human race tends to be over-confident
about its knowledge and abilities, and tends to bumble along in a blissful
state of unknowing ignorance. Therefore, we are very likely to underestimate
the number of Unknowns that surround us.
Some Unknowns are easy to admit: we don’t know what the
weather will be like in the future; we don’t know what the economy will do next
year; and we don’t know how long we will live. Other Unknowns are more
difficult to admit: do we really know about our members and their behaviors? Do
we really know if our advertising is working? Do we truly understand the
variables that drive the success of our brands?
These are the blind spots, the problems, issues, and
variables we have no awareness of. These are often the most dangerous variables
and situations we ever face because they can catch us completely by surprise.
Unknown Unknowns arise from lack of awareness, information or knowledge, and
from psychological or cultural blindness. Strong emotions, religious beliefs,
rigid educational training, societal norms, cultural values, and rigid opinions
can blind us to obvious truths. The world of publishing is full of Unknown
Every CEO should observe wide-ranging focus groups about his
or her industry and company every year or two, without any consultants or
employees around to taint and contaminate these revelations of unvarnished
truth. CEOs with thin skins might not be able to handle such an exposure to
Unknown Unknowns, but CEOs who can listen, accept, and learn would find that
such research can reveal many of the Unknown Unknowns.
There are things we know, but don’t know we know. This is a
strange category — and one might argue is an impossible category, a
contradiction. When someone points it out to us, we say, "of course, I know
Over the years, I’ve met with and discussed upcoming
research projects with hundreds and hundreds of senior executives, marketing
directors, and researchers. These preparatory project discussions are intended
to uncover what the company already knows, or thinks it knows. When the
research project is completed and the results are presented to the same
executives, a not uncommon reaction is "We are already aware and know all of
this,” even though they did not mention any of these "facts” during the
meetings before the research.
This relates back to an earlier assertion that the human
race thinks it knows more than it actually knows, and it’s easy after the
answers are presented to delude ourselves into thinking that we already knew
the answers. This is only part of the story, however.
In many cases, executives are aware of the findings after
the fact in that they have heard employees or customers mention some of the
issues previously. However, the executives’ awareness never reached a threshold
level or decision level. The executives were not sure enough about the
information to base any decisions on it. We can know things, but not realize
how important they are. We can know things, but not understand how the pieces
fit together or know what is causing what. We can be blind to the obvious, or
blind to the implications of the obvious.
Unknown Knowns are commonplace.
Knowns are fewer and more rare than the human race —
including senior executives — believe, while Unknowns are ubiquitous. They
surround us on all sides. Senior executives tend to think that they know more
than they actually know; after all, they are members of the human race. The
ultimate quest of marketing research is the scientific search for truth, facts,
and evidence that executives can confidently base decisions on.
The ultimate prize is understanding cause and effect so that
executives know which buttons to push and which levers to pull to change the
trajectories of their associations and brands.
Thomas (email@example.com) is
president and chief executive of Decision Analyst, a global research and
analytical consulting firm headquartered in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.