The benefits of history

Marketers are good at looking ahead. We predict/create the future, working to build an idea or a product into something that will matter more tomorrow than it does today.

The focus on the future, though, encourages us to take our attention away from what has worked in the past. The next time someone tells you that they've seen a UFO, ask them about this article. A look at a hundred years of UFOs and bigfoots and other things that were certain to change everything shows that they never have. Don't even get me started with the history of astrology.

My question to marketers with a huge idea, something that will change everything, is, "tell me about how someone has done this before." Of course there are first-time-ever groundbreaking exceptions that change the rules forever. But my guess is that you'd rather have a launch or a concept that can follow in the conceptual footsteps of what came before.

Every two years, teenage girls fall in love with an irresistible fashion fad. If you develop the next one, you can look at the last six for clues about how it works.

Every once in a while, a new technology is introduced online and it becomes the must-have, must-be-talked-about breakthrough. If you've got one of those, it would be useful to look at what made the last five work.

Every two weeks, there's a surprise bestseller in the bookstore. Surely we can learn from that process.

But, if all you've got is a lot of confidence and nothing to point to in the past, forgive me for being a bit skeptical. Hopeful, sure, but skeptical.