create a test and learn environment with pilot projects

Top 100 Content Marketing Question: How do you create a test and learn environment to drive incremental gains over time?

To create a test and learn environment, focus first on creating an innovation culture in the Marketing Department.

How? Make sure innovation is everyone’s job.

Don’t make the mistake many companies make: they handpick a small set of innovators whose sole job is innovation. They build a small innovation tent for hand-picked explorers.

But a small innovation tent is unlikely to create a test and learn environment. Instead, you need a big tent that brings everyone together to co-create and innovate.

A test and learn environmental calls for a big tent
Build a big tent to foster innovation, and invite everyone in.

Companies that innovate believe one person or group owns great ideas,” says marketing guru Carla Johnson. “That creates a ‘not my job’ stance in other people.

Innovative companies believe everyone has responsibility for coming up with ideas. They want everyone to have the gusto, the passion for making customers successful.”

So, take care before you designate people to be innovators. In effect, you’re telling everyone else not to innovate.

Will that approach lead to success?

Probably not. A healthy innovation culture is one where everyone has a stake in innovation.

When you confer licenses to innovate, the licenses must come with permission to try things that might fail. To achieve real innovation, you have to take a chance.

Why isn’t there more innovation in marketing?

Because fear of failure holds back individuals and companies.

When people take small risks, when they’re allowed only to test the things that are likely to succeed, their learning and capacity for innovation are limited by design.

A true innovation culture is one where people are allowed to fail and then learn from failure. In such a culture, chances are, people can achieve worthwhile innovation.

to create a test and learn environment, never give up
Thomas Edison encourages innovators to never give up. Image courtesy of


  • Inventor Thomas Edison persisted with 1,000 attempts to invent the light bulb. Asked a reporter, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
  • At Yale, FedEx founder Fred Smith got a C on his paper that put forward the idea of an overnight delivery service. His professor found the concept interesting and well-formed. But, the professor said, to get better than a C, it also needed to be feasible.
  • Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. He reflected, “I’ve failed over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed.”
  • As Samuel Beckett wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Here are approaches marketers can use to stimulate an innovation culture:

create a test and learn environment
To get better at content marketing, create a test and learn environment. Find new ideas, then experiment!

Conduct small experiments

Small experiments are a great way to get started on creating a test and learn environment. These experiments take weeks or months to get results:

  • Create a new twist on an old topic.
  • Address a topic that no one in your space has written about.
  • Seek evidence to confirm or refute something everyone in your industry believes, but there’s no evidence for, as Andy Crestodina suggests.
  • Answer a customer question no one’s dared to answer before, as Marcus Sheridan advises.
  • Refresh evergreen content by newsjacking and summarizing.
  • Convert existing content into new media.
  • Fashion A/B tests that take bigger risks.

If you can increase the number of experiments you try from a hundred to a thousand, you dramatically increase the number of innovations you produce,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder.

create a test and learn environment with pilot projects
Launch a pilot project to create a test and learn environment.

Empower pilot projects

Calling a content marketing program a pilot project gives you permission to try things you wouldn’t otherwise gain the license to try.

Create a protected zone around pilot projects to give them a chance to succeed, since a pilot project takes a year or more to yield significant results. For example:

  • Give marketers the task of attracting a whole new audience.
  • Assign a greenfield project such as finding a way to launch a new product with content marketing alone.
  • Tackle short-cycle sales to accelerate content marketing results.
  • Take on the challenge of adopting an orphan, a product or market that’s been neglected for at least a year, and bringing growth to it.
  • Experiment with a new medium that customers are starting to use.
measure to create a test and learn environment
How to measure content marketing success? Many approaches can help you build a test and learn environment.

Measure what matters

Real success in content marketing is measured in subscribers who give you permission to continue sending marketing to them.

  • Make small asks that leads to a bigger ask – a hard conversion. Due to the human consistency principle, people who say yes to a small ask are likely to say yes to a big ask.
  • Test new approaches to convert subscribers into customers and revenue.
  • Analyze measurements to learn which best predict conversions.

To create a test and learn environment:

  • Create an innovation culture.
  • Conduct small experiments.
  • Empower pilot projects.
  • Measure what matters.
Top 100 content marketing questions
Get the answers to marketers’ top 100 questions about content marketing.

“How do you create a test and learn environment to drive incremental gains over time?” is one of marketers’ Top 100 Questions about content marketing. Here are the answers.