Innovation and Data - The Marketer's Dilemma

If there's one thing that brands and marketers seem to agree on, it's the importance of innovation. It's one of those wonderfully squishy concepts that people bandy about, assuming that everyone else understands what they are talking about.

But what is innovation, really -- and how do we as marketers think about making it a part of what we do?

I'm sure there are many definitions of “innovation,” but let's use Wikipedia's: “something original and new that breaks in to the market or into society.” Fair enough -- innovation is a new thing that has not been done before. There isn't any data and you can't consult case studies. It's new, and that means that that nobody really knows what's going to happen, which explains why innovation is risky and often fails.  

It's unpredictable.

Innovation wasn't a word that marketers used much until technology became a part of our world. Now digital marketers can't go two sentences without rolling it out.



We have recognized that innovation is like creativity, an opportunity to differentiate the brand, to stand out of the pack and get attention. Today we do that with apps and platforms, and by giving people new ways to do things powered by technology.

But at the same time that we are selling the wonders of innovation to our clients, we are also selling the wonders of data and analytics. I think this creates some issues.

The attraction of data to companies is that by sifting through tons of it we can take most of the risk out of decision-making and turn business into a predictable machine. It’s the natural inclination of all companies to reduce risk and make their revenue and profits as predictable as possible. Money hates uncertainty, which is why it loves Big Data so much.

In marketing we all know the John Wanamaker quote: "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half." Data appears to have solved this problem. The problem is that the data, like all data, is, of course, historical. That means what it is measuring has already happened, which makes the common assumption that by studying that data from the past we can know what will happen in the future, somewhat dubious.

Data is fine if you want to know whether your advertising worked, but as anyone who has ever invested in the stock market will tell you: “current performance may be lower or higher than the quoted past performance, which cannot guarantee future results.”

If what we are doing is innovative, has never been done or experienced before, historical data cannot fully predict what will happen. It might point to probabilities, but how valuable is that really?

Let’s say that because whitewall tires have been big sellers you assume that yellow wall tires might do well too. The data might point to that, but you would probably be wrong, because what you really need to innovate is good intuition.

Unfortunately, while companies will invest all day long in data, intuition is a much harder sell. Not all companies. Steve Jobs and Apple didn’t bother much with research because he recognized that shaping the future is about vision. However, it’s only at the highest levels of management in a company that someone might have the freedom, vision, and power to ignore data and be like Steve Jobs.

So this leaves us in a delicate position. On the one hand, our mission as digital marketers is to innovate, but on the other we have to justify the risks we propose with historical data.

Innovation is tough enough without tying our hands to the past. We need to send a clear message that winning requires risk, and that as much as we love data it cannot drive innovation. That takes vision, intuition and some special people.


1 comment about "Innovation and Data - The Marketer's Dilemma".
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  1. Jim Clouse from, July 16, 2013 at 10:19 a.m.

    Innovation on the mobile phone is monetizing your site without pushing any advertisements onto the small screen. Only can do that!

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