4 Essential Marketing Insights from Freakonomics Author Stephen J. Dubner


As all marketing professionals and watchers of “Mad Men” know, marketing is a tricky field. It’s one of the few industries that rely equally on creative ideas that have never been seen before and cold, analytical testing.

But what do you do when you feel stuck in a marketing rut?

Luckily, Steven J. Dubner was there to the rescue. Co-author of the popular Freakonomics book series, which have sold more than 7 million copies worldwide, Dubner is a seasoned pro at looking at seemingly obviously problems from a new angle.

As a self-identified “freak,” I jumped at the opportunity to interview Stephen J. Dubner about what his advice is when it comes to breathing some new life into your marketing strategy. The following interview offers a glimpse into the Freakonomics way of thinking, while giving a taste of what Dubner will be covering during his session at Email Summit 2015. So without further ado, enjoy.


First things first, what does it mean to Think Like a Freak?

Whereas Dubner and Levitt’s first two books, Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, melded pop culture and economics to explore topics and arguments that “traditional” economists would typically never touch, their latest book explains the thought process behind Freakonomics.

Think Like a Freak explains how to apply this questioning mentality that Dubner and Levitt have employed so successfully in both of their books to answer questions in everyday life. But I’m making this all sound more complicated than I need to.

Essentially, thinking like a freak involves looking at common, everyday problems from a new lens. It encourages the “freak” to be unafraid to question every step of the processes and conclusions that surround them.

The practical idea behind this mentality is simple — how can we be absolutely sure that we are performing at our best if we never try anything new? Thinking like a freak really boils down to one idea: testing.

Here is just a taste of what this freakish mentality is:

So what was Dubner’s advice on revitalizing your marketing?


Lesson #1: Get creative

First start with a white sheet of paper. Don’t hold back. What types of things might your customers relate to?

One of the biggest challenges that can come from running campaign after campaign is finding new and exciting ways to look at problems. After all, constantly being on your creativity A-game is draining. Luckily, this is a feeling that Dubner knows all too well:

MarketingExperiments: What are your top strategies to avoid falling into a creative rut?

Stephen J. Dubner: Surround yourself with people who don’t think like you (or come from different age or income or ethnic or political or vocational brackets, etc.). When you’re traveling, always pick out one site to see that you think sounds ridiculous, and see if you can learn something with it. And here’s my favorite: when you meet someone new, no matter what they do, just say this: “Tell me something I don’t know about [whatever you do].” It’s the best ice-breaker in the world, and you’ll learn a lot.

I feel more creative already.


Lesson #2: Test to learn

Now, see how your ideas resonate with your customers. Make sure you’re running good tests to know what your customers really want; everything starts with the customer. By running your tests well, everything else you do will be grounded in true customer knowledge.

So now that we have a taste of what it means to adopt the Freakonomics mentality, let’s delve a little deeper. After their bestselling success, Dubner and Levitt have been asked to consult with top companies all over the world about how to work more efficiently. As you can imagine, during this time, Dubner has encountered his fair share of failing marketing and business tactics.

MEx: What are the most common marketing or business strategy mistakes that you’ve seen?

SD: A lot of firms think they are “experimenting” when in fact they are just trying one thing after another to see if anything works. To run a good experiment, you need to randomize — to set up at least one treatment group and one control group — and measure the results. As much as we may complain about the lack of true experimentation in education, healthcare delivery, government, etc., there isn’t nearly enough true experimentation in business as there ought to be.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

The following resources can help you determine what does and doesn’t qualify as good testing:


Lesson #3: Get the message out there

Once you’ve found which messages customers best respond to, there are many channels to convey that message.

According to the State of Inbound 2014 report, inbound marketing delivers 54% more leads through the marketing funnel than traditional outboard marketing, and according to eMarketer, 60% of B2B marketers report using content marketing on a weekly basis.

With three books, a high-quality podcast that produces new content each week and a documentary, Dubner knows exactly what it takes to make quality content. His advice? Invest time and effort into content that your audience actually wants.

MEx: You and your staff are kind of content marketing geniuses. Freakonomics Radio has consistently been a top podcast for months. Do you have any advice on how marketers can be more creative in their content creation and storytelling? What have you found to be effective in content marketing?

SD: I think that good content is the best marketing. For instance, we use Twitter to “promote” our podcast, but all the promotion is in the form of real editorial content. I know that marketers can manufacture demand to some degree, but it is a lot easier to steer demand toward something that people really want rather than trying to persuade them to want something they probably don’t.

Here are some resources to help shape your content marketing:


Lesson #4: Understand when you have to tip the balance with incentive

Even the best creative based on the customer’s need delivered through the right channel sometimes required some extra urgency or motivation.

This is where incentive comes in. Make sure not to over-incent and be careful with your incentives. Make sure that you’re asking yourself, “Am I incentivizing people to do the right thing?”

MEx: You often write and teach about the power and sometimes the unintended effect of incentives. How are marketers using incentives well and poorly? What insights do you have on walking that fine line between incentivizing consumers without manipulating them?

SD: Let’s be honest: it is hard to get the incentives right. They might be too big, too small, too visible, too provocative, etc. Once in a while, they’ll backfire entirely — i.e., they’ll encourage the opposite behavior that you set out to encourage. Or you’ll find an incentive that works for a while but (hello, diminishing returns!) wears off quickly.

The keys to being successful are:

  1. Experiment early
  2. Measure constantly
  3. Don’t fall so in love with a successful idea that you’re not willing to abandon it if/when it starts to fail

Here are some resources to better explain the fine print of incentivizing:


Kayla is a Copy Editor for MECLABS Institute. You can follow her on Twitter @itskaylacobb.


Want to hear more from Stephen J. Dubner? Join us at Email Summit 2015, February 24-26 at the ARIA Resort & Casino, Las Vegas, where Dubner will be a Featured Speaker.


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