Data Is Friend Who Might Just Kill Us

The science of marketing is going in two very different directions. 

Every day the pages of marketing pubs (like this one) are full of the wonders of big data and programmatic ad buying. Even the most deluded marketing directors a few years ago wouldn’t have dared dream about being able to deliver their messages with the targeting, efficiency and trackability that they can now.

But, meanwhile, a relatively new field of study, behavioral economics, is piling up the evidence on a daily basis that we humans are not a data-driven species. Rather, it is instinct and emotion that guides almost every decision we make to a degree greater than we ever realized. 

But data. Oh, data! How we marketers love data.

And why wouldn’t we? It seems every meeting with the media folks or the social media team reveals some new astonishing level of tracking or targeting now available to us. My usual reaction is, “Wow, that’s fantastic…” (followed by the nagging guilt that consumers would probably burn us all at the stake if they really understood just how much like bugs under our microscope they really are).



But most of all we love data because it can be measured. Business people have a deep-seated bias toward things we can measure. And that makes sense. CMOs these days seem to get the ax as often as characters on “Game of Thrones.” So any decision that comes with a suit of armor made of data is hard to resist. 

Yet, while the big data analysts and programmatic gurus are having their day in the sun, there are some other very bright people who are quietly discovering amazing things about human behavior. And they are much harder to measure.

The fields of behavioral economics and psychology are revealing remarkable things about the way the human mind works. And while I am a long way from being an expert in this burgeoning field, I can sum up my reading of people like Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler and Dan Ariely this way: Man, we do not think the way we think we think. 

We are impulsive, driven by emotion and bias in ways of which we aren’t even aware. Our minds are lazy, instinctively looking for short cuts and easy paths to make decisions. 

For me, this unfolding field of research has been a vindication of something that I have known in my gut but could never really prove: Creativity in marketing is not a layer of fluff on top of the information consumers really want; it is actually the driver of the emotions that truly shape their behavior. 

Billion-dollar businesses have been built out of feelings. Nike, Dos Equis, the entire fashion industry don’t tell rationale stories — or at least they certainly don’t lead with them. Because they are marketers that understand what Daniel Kahneman said, “We think that we make our decisions because we have good reasons to make them. Even when it's the other way around. We believe in the reasons, because we've already made the decision.”

So, as modern marketers get increasingly data-driven, it is becoming ever more clear that their consumers are anything but data driven. 

What are we to do? 

Here’s what I propose: 

Marketers, I ask — no beg — that you resist the siren call of data and all its “certainty.” It may be a great suit of armor, but you won’t win any battles without a sword. And creative, surprising, hard-to-measure messaging is your sword. 

So let’s have data dictate who, where, when and how often our messages are seen. But as for what is being said? I don’t think we should let the algorithms anywhere near the creation of these messages intended to make our audiences laugh, cry, think, feel, react. That must remain odd, unpredictable, nuanced humans communicating with odd, unpredictable, nuanced humans. 

Unless your target market is robots. In which case just ignore this essay … .

4 comments about "Data Is Friend Who Might Just Kill Us".
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  1. James Smith from J. R. Smith Group, October 19, 2015 at 10:44 a.m.

    Alec:  Some interesting points indeed.  I'd submit the value of 'big data' is best viewed as adding to the probability of success rather than dictating every marketing move. Regarding data and creative efforts...I respectfully disagree, at least in part.  Data can improve success probabilities there too if used in a prudent fashion.  Can data legislate the big idea?  Probably not, but it helps prevent you from jumping into a non-impactful creative abyss.

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics, October 19, 2015 at 11:15 a.m.

    As a rule, "big data" tells us the same things as "little data" and, in many respects the "big data" that everyone is excitedly chirping about either has  flaws---like being about households, not people---or it doesn't cover what many marketers need to know---like the image of their brands, how consumers are altering their attitudes about things they care about, etc. Also, there is only so much data that a human being---especially a marketing director or corporate bigwig---can absorb. The notion that marketing managers will pour over vast amounts of "data" on a daily basis and constantly modify their promotional and/or media spending patterns accordingly, sounds fine, but I doubt that we will ever see it in practice----not as long as the "human" factor applies to both marketers and consumers. Data is fine, but it only gets us so far. The rest---including key decision making--- is up to us.

  3. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, October 19, 2015 at 4:47 p.m.

    “The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.”
    …GK Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”

    And the HUGE problem with big data is that practitioners claim it explains the world. It doesn't. And it's dangerous because it tries to but you never know what it missed - where the I exactitude lies hidden.

  4. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, October 19, 2015 at 6:24 p.m.

    Oops... I meant "you never know where the inexactitude is hidden"

    predictable error can be handles. But when you can't predict where the error is hiding, you should walk away.

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