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Outcomes versus outputs: The art behind the science of marketing

3.19.24 / By Kim Allen

Marketing, the way we see it at DS+CO, is a mix of both art and science. For the intent of this post, we’ll focus on the art of it.

Art evolves. I offer this insight on pure observation. Art uses two main functions to survive: performance and aesthetics. The latter requires training, time, practice, craftsmanship and much more. Because of that, it evolves over time. We see this with activities like music and dance. If you examine what the human body could accomplish (perform) in either of these areas decades ago and compare it to today’s musicians or dancers, you’ll see mind-blowing evolution. Over time, because of training, practice and craftmanship, the performance improves.

This can also be described as outputs versus outcomes in marketing.

Tangible results for intangible impact

Outputs and outcomes go hand-in-hand. They differ, but the relationship between the two must be considered and understood to see real change.

Outputs are the “what” of marketing efforts—the direct tasks, services and deliverables you produce within a specific timeframe. Results are often tangible and measurable, such as the following:

  • Launch a new customer loyalty program
  • Sign up 500 new email subscribers by June 2024
  • Increase organic website traffic 40% by Q4

Outcomes can be seen as our “why”—the long-term effects of the outputs that may not be directly observable but create meaning, relationships and differences over time. These could include the following:

  • Increase customer retention rate by 10%
  • Increasing brand awareness by expanding our geographic footprint to three key markets
  • Increase revenue growth by 3x

While outputs serve as building blocks toward achieving long-term goals, outcomes focus on the impact the outputs bring. Outcomes also challenge the belief that marketing is solely about numbers—and emphasize the idea that people and progress are at the heart of what we do.

If at first you don’t succeed, evolve and evolve again

The road to success doesn’t always follow point A to point B. The outputs we create (whether in the form of strategy or breakthrough ideas) must evolve and improve over time, generating better outcomes. The problems we’re hoping to solve become solved and new problems arise. It’s evolution.

When I started, the agency was keenly interested in creating work that worked. The systems and means through which we achieved this looked very different at the time, but the intention was the same. The outputs begot desired outcomes. It has always been the way we approach the work.

The challenge is that this is not a common framework for many brands. It’s tempting to focus on the outputs and measure activity against a set of stated objectives. In fact, in a recent CMO survey by Deloitte and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, marketing leaders shared that the most challenging activity to implement on a regular basis was demonstrating the impact of marketing actions on financial outcomes.

Outputs serve as stepping stones, but focusing only on outputs misses the bigger picture and hinders us from achieving real outcomes. It’s a trap that will undoubtedly create frustration and confusion. If outputs aren’t framed against business challenges that need to be solved, investments in marketing are futile.

It’s no secret that marketing is complex. It doesn’t involve single-tactic campaigns that rely on one delivery channel. It’s an interdependent ecosystem. That’s why we are focused on solving business challenges (the outcome) through data-informed strategy delivered through an omnichannel plan (outputs).

We have evolved, and continue to evolve, because the art of marketing requires it.

Why outcomes matter

The art of marketing also requires looking beyond direct results. It’s measuring the long-term effects, too—which is why it’s critical to know the difference between a tactical vendor and a transformational partner. Success boils down to a deep understanding of your business goals, how your marketing efforts ladder up to them and how they will help you ultimately improve the lives of those around you.

At DS+CO, we’ve made outcomes part of our philosophy so they’re ingrained in everything we do. Measuring marketing activity is essential but can also be fruitless if we’re not relating it back to the business challenge. When it comes to reporting the results of our work, we don’t believe in sharing results without insights. Because output drives outcomes.

Does your organization tend to focus on data and shortsighted results? Consider shifting the approach of focusing on the needs of the business to the needs of the customer:

  • Challenge your definition of done: Remember that success isn’t defined by the delivery of a project—it’s when the target is reached. This means monitoring and continuous improvement must be a part of the journey.
  • Always be flexible: Measuring long-term outcomes requires a sense of adaptability. Achieving your goals won’t always be a linear process and there will continue to be shifts in both the market and customers’ needs. Knowing when to pivot, shift gears and move forward can be frustrating, but it’s essential to truly evolve.
  • People over products. Outputs are a measure of success, but they aren’t the only measure of success. We can deliver a product, complete a task or achieve a benchmark, but unless those results impact people in a positive way, there’s still work to be done.

If you’re able to shift your focus beyond outputs to outcomes, you can ensure you’re helping achieve your business goals while also delivering real value to your customers and communities.

Where to go from here

The more we move forward, the more work will be measured by outcomes. That’s why it’s critical to work with a strategic business partner who understands your business challenge at its core—and what it takes to help you evolve over time.

At DS+CO, we foster a culture of innovation that allows us to adapt for and with our clients. Together, we’ll take a deep dive into what matters most to your business and help you turn results into lasting impact.

Looking to learn more about output- and outcome-based thinking? Reach out to me on LinkedIn and connect.

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Kim Allen

Kim puts our people front and center, building on empathy and quick decision-making that have served her teams well. She started her career at Mower and soon found her home with DS+CO, where she led our public relations team and expanded her skillset into consumer, B2B, telecom and human services. In 2020, she took the helm, guiding our agency into a new era. She’s a Forty Under 40 and ATHENA Young Professional, is DEI certified, and sits on the boards of the American Heart Association of NY, Mercy Flight Central, Alfred University and the RIT Advertising & Marketing Program.