Data Is The Way To Go -- Except When It's Not

In last week’s column, I discussed what I called the disturbing dogma of social media. The idea provoked some strong responses (thank you! I’m always grateful for feedback). Traci Browne pointed out that I had used a narrow definition of social media, while others got into a reasonably heated discussion of its pros and cons.

The argument might have seemed like an ordinary blog post comment thread, but to me there was a meta-layer to it, one about the nature of discussion and the nature of attachment.

I recently heard again a familiar aphorism: “Data settles arguments.” It’s a phrase commonly used by proponents of A/B testing and iterative development. Its premise is simple: There is little to be gained from debating subjective aesthetic positions on this style or that one, from allowing temperatures to elevate in the name of being “right” about which cover picture we should use. We should, rather, put our options to the test -- and may the better version win, in a kind of Darwinian “survival of the fittest design.”



Allowing data to settle arguments implies releasing attachments to opinions and assumptions. The Buddhists would be proud: the second of their Four Noble Truths is that the origin of all suffering is attachment. Openness to data also implies approaching debates with a different mindset, focused on a different outcome. As Joseph Joubert said, “The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory, but progress.”

On Monday, my MediaPost colleague Steve Smith posted a column about an Instagram campaign run by French mobile provider M6. Steve was impressed with the campaign’s social impact, but also included some statistics: “[T]he company saw 4.6 times more comments on its posts, over 95% of which were positive. And it saw 12 times more stories generated on its page with an increase of over 1400% in sharing. It calculated its cost per view at €0.14.”

Relative to M6’s baseline, the campaign was a clear success. But it’s up to them and their metrics whether €0.14 is a success or not. How many of those views turn into leads? How many of those leads convert? How long does a customer remain a customer, and, therefore, what is the total lifetime value of a conversion? In the end, company math is simple: if the cost to acquire a customer is less than their lifetime value, you stay alive. If it’s not, you don’t.

Coming back to the Buddhists: being notoriously difficult to pin down, they would probably equally frown on attachment to data. Steve Jobs, whose eclectic background famously included calligraphy studies, would likely concur, and certainly data cannot settle an argument about whether your design will stir the soul. The pyramids at Giza were not the product of A/B iterations; Picasso did not beta test his work. But while Picasso was best known for Cubism, his technical skill and ability to faithfully reproduce the outside world show clearly that his more abstract work is the result of conscious choice, not random scribblings.

At the risk of sounding repetitive of last week’s message, the important thing here is, in fact, that conscious choice: to be aware of when to rely on data and when to trust your instinct, and to be the one deciding between the two.

Let data settle arguments, when appropriate. Let go of attachment to opinions and assumptions, if you need to. But don’t forget to stir the soul.

See you next week.

4 comments about "Data Is The Way To Go -- Except When It's Not ".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Ford Kanzler from Marketing/PR Savvy, April 5, 2013 at 10:46 a.m.

    And how often has the data lied? I don't have an example at hand but I'm betting there have been many instances where a pile of data was dead wrong. Purely data-driven marketing will fail because humans are emotional beings and often refuse to act as expected. Linear forecasting or projecting only from data may be hazardous to your marketing program.

  2. Bruce May from Bizperity, April 5, 2013 at 11:18 a.m.

    Any discussion about emerging marketing practices should acknowledge variations between industry segments (at least at a gross level (i.e. retail, financial, B2B, etc.) and further recognize that digital media (yes, I mean digital and not just social) strategies also depend on fundamental differences in how the underlying rules of the game work. Social media campaigns that are grounded in building audience and creating a media-like presence have been very successful but the ROI is then measured over years as it takes time to build audience. Successful social media strategies designed on audience building strategies move ownership of the audience from an external (and temporary) media channel to the advertiser who becomes the trusted source of content. These approaches have more in common with long term brand advertising strategies than short term ad campaigns.
    Kaila smartly points out the need to connect social media metrics to lead conversion and sales, something too often overlooked in the excitement of creating immediate buzz (as measured by any kind of social media measure). Real world data reflects both the struggle that national brands have in trying to understand how to apply these new kinds of strategies while insisting on holding onto traditional campaign tactics on the one hand and success stories that are largely being overlooked by marketing professionals working with national consumer brands. For those businesses that utilize a professional sales force, the role of the sales person in generating their own leads using social media opens up a whole new opportunity for supporting their activities with creative content strategies. For other business segments, different strategies are called for but in every case, marketing campaigns must focus on measurable outcomes or they will fail to establish their own value. Investing in social media just to say that you are on top of the latest marketing trend is highly unlikely to produce any kind of meaningful result. Building smart digital media and social marketing strategies have already proven their value which will only grow as more marketers begin to better understand the underlying changes in the rules of this new game. This requires that we embrace both our creative side and our analytical side at the same time. I think that is why most of us are in marketing to begin with.

  3. Davida Tretout from Go2Chic, April 5, 2013 at 11:49 a.m.

    It is extremely important that we remember that numbers tell a different story than the big or small picture. Inspiration often lies in the small indefinable spaces that make us smile or reach our emotional core. The steps to write a good story are clear, but a good story is never just about steps. It's about an emotional relationship executed outside, because of & in spite of the steps. So goes data...

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 5, 2013 at 2:18 p.m.

    Kaila, you are a star. One more thing I realized. Example: There are, let's say, 5 manufacturers of toothpaste. What are the odds one of the manufacturers are going to profit from your purchase? If nothing else, it's sure gonna' cost more to sell that toothpaste now and who is going to pay for all that data collection ? And do we all want to exist is lockstep to what our data tells us to do ? The data provides the controller to tell you what to buy and what to do and what to decide. Do you want the dogs to keep chasing their tails at your expense or do you want to want to relinquish your person as soon as possible ?

Next story loading loading..