Who thought you could sell water? Or charge more than $4 for a coffee? And how about offer an airline seat without any baggage allowance? For many years these products, price points and packages just didn’t exist. Everyone assumed they just would not work. That was until someone decided to test the assumption and found out that it wasn’t so – and markets were created and millions of revenue made.

Assumptions versus Facts. In what camp does your market knowledge reside? And within the assumption list, do any require the blow torch of fact-finding applied to them to discover some breakthrough outcomes for you this year?

Unfortunately, as marketers a lot of the space we deal with is cluttered with assumption after assumption. We live day-to-day, trying to understand and predict human behaviour – so there’s always a fair dollop of assumption to achieve in these spaces. Nevertheless, the good news is that the online space is littered with ways to challenge even the most hardened assumptions and turn them into facts. We just need to know how to go about it.

But before I delve into how, it’s worthwhile to spend a few moments on the reasons why only a few follow this path, because without knowing this you will fall into the common trap of dressing up a few assumptions as hardened facts.

So let’s start with a biggie – the truth could be just too hard to handle. We had an experience of this late last year. It all started with an overseas customer wanting to improve their lead conversion. We kicked off with a survey to learn more about the top problems their prospects wanted to solve when they started looking online for the product on offer. We collected over 500 responses, categorised them into sections and presented the client with the top five reasons.

They listened very politely to our presentation and then promptly went on to initially ignore the research, because it didn’t accurately reflect their thoughts on what prospects were thinking. They had operated within the market for many years and had a “feel” for what their prospects wanted. We had presented the “facts” but the “assumptions” were still living. Fortunately for both of us, we convinced them to run a split test of two versions of their landing page. The first included content that spoke to their “feel” of what prospects wanted to know about. The second used the factual research to determine which content should be presented in what order. The facts beat the assumptions by a sizable amount. This meant extra dollars in their pocket and it never ceases to amaze me how more money can change even a long-held assumption in record time!

Another reason why assumptions live on for years and years is because in some cases finding facts can take time. Something that people in a hurry don’t have much of. But then I suppose it’s not that easy to realise that you could be toiling away within a marketing strategy that is built on the shaky ground of incorrect assumptions.

Here’s an example of how the time and energy spent fact finding can bring with it many rewards. Over the recent holidays I read the story of James Dyson and his quest to build a better vacuum cleaner. He had an assumption that a cyclone design would do a much better job than the traditional option of a quick-clogging bag in front of a sucking motor. Now I forget the exact number of cyclone versions he went through to prove this assumption but it was over 2500, and took many years of pain-staking refinement to get it working. But he did and his machines now represent a multi-million dollar industry.

For my last example I head off into the land of financial services – particularly the darker side of the neighbourhood. This is where assumptions are supported by the actions of such a large proportion of the market that they make you believe they are facts. Prior to reading about James and his amazing cyclone, I had just finished a book on a certain Mr Bernie Madoff. Some of you may remember him. He was the New York financier who ran the world’s biggest Ponzi investment scheme. (That’s when you think you are investing with him but in reality he takes your money to pay the interest he owes to others and dips into what’s left of your money for himself.) He was quite a successful chap. All up they estimate he was responsible for misappropriating around USD 20 billion of actual hard cash and around 64 billion of fake profits. Just to help you put that into perspective, the last figure is roughly half of New Zealand’s total GDP for 2005. He was quite a busy boy.

Anyway, everyone “assumed” their money was being invested into legitimate stocks and bonds. And by everyone I mean huge international banks, large fund managers and even those in industry review organisations whose job it was to police the industry for such fraud. The assumption ran very deep. But because he was a man of considerable wealth and standing in the financial community no one bothered to look further for any facts to prove the investments had actually been made.

Now I hope that there is no Mr Madoff in your life but sit back and take a look at your market. Are there any assumptions that are rife that you haven’t yourself seen the facts to prove yet?

How about social media? The assumption here is that Facebook is a “must do” for nearly all marketers, and that any time spent here will be richly rewarded. Well, will it? Do the facts tell you this? If they do, then all well and good. And look – before I receive any hate email from the social media ravers – yes, there are some instances where it works. But from what I see this is not true in every case so don’t assume it will be for you. Challenge the assumption.

So by now you should be ready and willing to slay any assumptions that cross your desk. Next, let’s dig into the ways in which online marketers can make some progress in 2012. Here’s three to get your teeth into:

1) Look for facts that prove both the positive and opposite states occur.
Realise that data can be used and manipulated to support even the most wonky of assumptions. So to really challenge them look for hard data that reveals both the assumption is working and that the counter assumption is not. If you assume that the best way to deliver AdWords traffic is to a landing page rather than your home page (and let’s face it, 8/10 times it is), then do this BUT also spend some dollars sending traffic to your home page just to prove for yourself that this market assumption is a fact for you.

2) When it comes to humans, ask, watch, but still test.
Earlier I mentioned that as marketers each day we deal with human behaviour, which comes filled to the brim with assumptions that need testing. Remembering my earlier example, somehow you need to put aside your own personal opinion and dig into some fact-finding work. Research is a good way to start. It doesn’t have to be of the same ilk as the airlines that ask you for a novella of information after you have flown – just answers to a couple of well worded questions can be enough. And why not look as well as listen? I’ve covered before the tools we use each day to help our customers look over the shoulder of their website visitors to see the paths they follow as they walk through their website. Whatever tactic you follow you are looking for hard facts about what people have done or said. Collect enough of this to make it statistically significant and you are ready for my final strategy.

3) Testing.
Yep, even though you have 500 survey responses and have looked at hundreds of recordings you are still going to test what all this tells you against what is there now. Once this reveals some good news, e.g. an improved conversion rate or reduced bounce count, you factually know that what you thought would work actually did.

And that’s what it’s all about – striking off one assumption and replacing it with a fact. Think of it as laying one more brick in the solid foundation of fact that supports your business. The more you lay, the stronger your business will be.