Monkeys and Marketing: An E-commerce Fable on Unintended Consequences

Updated with response from HBSP.

Among the signs of my background as a publishing technologist here at O’Reilly is a list of tech and programming blogs that I still keep an eye on (among them the excellent 37Signals, Joel on Software, and Norm Walsh’s blog). Another favorite is The Daily WTF, which is primarily a place for IT workers to amuse each other by (a.) poking fun at co-workers/bosses/customers, and (b.) poking fun at each other. Dilbert definitely reads it.

A recent entry crossed over into the publishing arena: while a bit dense with technical detail, it describes an amusing story from Harvard Business School Publishing, which offers a lesson in the pitfalls of designing marketing efforts based solely on e-ecommerce data — in this case, sales of a 1974 article titled, “Who’s Got the Monkey?” (full text here):

As part of the aggressive testing strategy mentioned earlier, the HBSP logistics team would fill their down time by executing test cases. … Then they’d add that single result — Who’s Got the Monkey? — to their shopping cart, create an new account, submit the order, and then fulfill it. Of course, they didn’t actually fulfill it — everyone knew that orders for “Mr. Test Test” and “123 Test St.” were not to be filled. That is, everyone except the marketing department.

When HBSP’s marketing department analyzed the sales trends, they noticed a rather interesting trend. Oncken’s 1974 Who’s Got the Monkey? was a run-away best seller! And like any marketing department would, they took the story and ran. HBSP created pamphlets and other distillations of the paper. They even repackaged those little plastic cocktail monkeys as official “Who’s Got the Monkey monkeys”.

Then again, one could argue that in this case those oft-maligned marketing folks did precisely what they’re supposed to do: generate and cultivate demand…

Updated: Bill Damon, Findability and Metrics Analyst at HBSP offers his take on the matter, via email:

I just saw your “Monkeys and Marketing” post on the TOC blog and thought I’d give you a little more information on the TheDailyWTF post. I was a technical lead on the new web site we rolled out in 2002 and we did not have test orders feeding our live order system. We set up a test order system specifically to handle these requests. No testing orders made it into the sales data marketing was working with.

I also just went back and looked at e-commerce sales for the “Who’s Got the Monkey?” and found no extraordinary impact on reprint sales levels at the time we began testing.

Setting up these test environments can be complex and expensive. But if you don’t do it right you can end up with a lot of problems including bad data. Fortunately for us we made sure we had a good environment to protect us against these issues.

P.S. — Speaking of HBSP, Paul Michelman has kindly shared the video his folks shot of their Gadgetopia II session at TOC:

Considering how we shot it, it didn’t turn out half bad. … In case it’s anecdotally interesting, we shot this on a $160 Flip Video camera.

(If you’re reading this in a Feed Reader, you may need to click through to the blog to see the above video).