Think Like an Engineer: How Flock Freight Pulled Off a F*ckload of Success

For its award-winning campaign, the freight tech company challenged assumptions, ran experiments and followed the evidence

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In an environment hyperfocused on cost management, marketers should always be prepared to justify their value. Thinking about your next campaign like an engineer—the people who test and design your product—can help you do that.

As a marketing leader who pivoted from global consumer brands to a b-to-b freight technology company, Flock Freight, I’ve learned invaluable lessons from the engineers who build our tech-driven platform to find and fill the empty spaces on trucks. It’s because of engineers that I think about marketing campaigns in terms of winning or learning, as opposed to winning or losing.

That engineering mindset informed our ad campaign featuring the actor Steve Burns, who was vaulted into America’s cultural consciousness as the investigative host of the iconic Nickelodeon children’s show Blue’s Clues 27 years ago.

We wanted to distinguish ourselves from others in the industry, as well as explain our technical solution in understandable, if unconventional, terms. But we faced many questions: Could Burns hold our audience’s attention long enough to explain the dynamics of the freight industry? Would his reemergence on smaller screens make sense to people? Would the use of adult language or profanity turn them off?

These might sound like questions for a creative team to tackle—and they are, but I didn’t want us to tackle them alone. Here are the three ways we executed a high-stakes advertising campaign through an engineering lens.

Present every scenario and measure the risks

It’s important to speak up about an idea’s potential to become bad news.

For example, the use of vulgarity was one of the inherent risks with our original concept for the ad. We tested the clearest possible language to connect with other businesses on a human level and finding, at the very least, that “f*ckloads” and “sh*tloads” sounded clearer than the jargon understood by few outside the freight industry.

But knowing that attention-grabbing tactics are a double-edged sword, we knew some audiences might not appreciate the irreverence of those four-letter words. To gauge the likelihood and impact of that scenario, I took a cue from the engineering teams that built the technology we were advertising.

Successful engineering teams never take unmeasured risks. They set up several hypotheses, identifying every known and unknown variable. Most importantly, they make sure to eliminate ambiguity to every possible extent. If an idea fails, the engineer almost always knows why.

When pitching the idea and vision for success, I also presented the worst-case scenario as my own counterargument: What if customers get offended? What are the consequences of splitting our audience?

Instead of tiptoeing around the worst-case scenarios, I put every hypothesis and variable on the table. We didn’t just run our hypotheses about the curse words to senior leadership. We tested the concept with every team at the firm, from sales and customer success to the legal team and, of course, the product and engineering teams.

That gave us the confidence to move forward, even if we knew we were taking a measured risk.

Assign metrics to every single variable

A campaign’s success is only as measurable as the metrics used to define it. Like engineers, everything you launch as a marketer should be ready to be measured, analyzed, socialized and iterated.

Every stage of a campaign presents opportunities to put marketing diagnostic tools to work. However, the planning stage presents one that you won’t have during or after its launch: articulating key measures of success.

One of our early inputs was the visual component behind the No. 1 rated show for preschoolers. Blue’s Clues used repetition, simple graphics and bright colors to educate its audience. Many of those preschoolers and older siblings have grown into the logistics and supply chain professionals we needed to reach. So, we used a familiar format to introduce our novel technology with colorful language to get some attention and laughter.

As we all know, interest, awareness and attention span are simultaneously dense and abstract concepts to gauge. Early on, our team established which specific metrics we would measure, analyze and use to determine success. We knew what we were looking for in terms of view-through rates, website traffic, media pickup, awareness lift, ad recall and search volume for keywords not just for the brand, but for the concept.

We also anticipated distribution-related measurements, like media efficiency and average time spent on our website, with variances across channels (in this case, LinkedIn versus YouTube). Once we mapped out every possible scenario, built consensus around the concept and assigned metrics to determine success, we were ready to execute like the engineers who built our technology.

Win or learn, embrace the outcome

To launch our campaign, we released four different ads featuring Burns explaining the differences in truckload sizes in memorable terms. We also amplified their reach with social teasers.

Upon launch, it’s important to find early signals that will help you test your hypotheses. We used a lot to show progress: views, engagement, amplification, sentiment scores and negative feedback.

Looking at the one-, three- and seven-day results gave us the right lead time to gather our data, while the time spent on different platforms showed us where our most engaged audiences were. The average time on our LinkedIn page was over two minutes, which is a massive jump from the typical seconds a user spends on any page.

YouTube revealed a different outcome: approximately 30 seconds. While still a positive result, it confirmed our prediction that our audience would prefer LinkedIn.

Collectively, the data confirmed our hypothesis about the campaign: That novel language and the nostalgic appeal of Blue’s Clues would generate interest among many more potential customers than it would offend. The shock of using Steve from Blue’s Clues to explain “sh*tloads” eventually resulted in more than 130 earned media articles, thousands of new social media followers, 181% brand awareness lift and a jump in customer acquisitions.

The campaign was named one of the the 30 Best Ads of 2022 by Adweek. Flock Freight was the only b-to-b company among the winners.

The elegance of the engineer’s process shows in the lessons you receive from the data. It helps to reframe your outcomes from win or lose to win or learn.

The only loss is the one you neglected to measure from the start. If every prediction fails, it’s time to look at the fallibility of your metrics and the design of your early stage tests.

At the end of the day, thinking like an engineer means constant iteration. Every result leads to another question: How can we apply the data to future work streams? What does this mean for our brand? How should we carry this lesson to the next campaign? Your answers to those questions will shape the future of your company.