Data Without Context Is Noise

I spend a lot of time trying to tell the story about data: What is data, why is it important, and how can marketers harness its power to make better campaigns?  

I have little epiphanies on a regular basis that I like to share in this column.  This week, my epiphany was clear: Data without context is noise.

Data refers to the information you gather about the consumer. While much of that data is useful, if you look at data in a vacuum, it is far less valuable than when you factor in the context, which provides a dimension that gives meaning to the data which otherwise may not be clear.

Very little data can be considered valuable in a stand-alone format.  Some might bring up demographics, but even with demographic data you need the context of time for it to make sense and be accurate. 

For example, age and household income are considered standard demographic data, but these can change over time.  Household income can change, as can the composition of the household.  Age obviously changes over time, and age implies life stage, which has a massive impact on the insights gleaned from the data.  The wise guy will make a joke that demographic gender data should or shouldn’t change, but in most cases gender data is implied and multiple people can use the same device, so gender is an educated guess and less likely to be accurate, thus less valuable.  

What is most valuable are signs of intent and interest, and these are always in flux.  Someone who is in market for a car now may not be in a month.  Someone who is buying organic food now might change to gluten-free in three weeks.  A consumer’s motivations and behaviors can change dramatically, and context provides insight into the “how” and the “why” of those changes.

Context, whether personal or global in nature, can have a massive impact on the ways consumers will go about their day and the types of decision they will make. Think about the political climate and how that can impact consumer behavior.  Economic stability or instability affects the discretionary expenditures of a household.  When a family gets a pet, that changes things.  The time of day can have an impact on purchases.  

There are tools in the market for layering context over consumer data, but the simplest way to do this is to examine global macro-trends that might have an impact and place them over any analysis you might be doing of your audience.  You also need to ensure you revisit your audience profiles regularly — potentially on a monthly basis, and even more often if you have a short consideration cycle for your products and services.

Subtle changes in the market can affect not only who you are targeting, but also which message you decide to display.  I often use the analogy that the customer journey is no longer linear, but instead represents as many options as you would have if you were driving from New York to San Francisco.  You have many permutations of routes — and each stage of that route can be experienced differently, whether it’s day or night, summer or winter, or more.  The context for that route will affect the path you decide to take. Most marketers have not yet advanced to the complexity of understanding the context as well as the audience they are trying to speak to, much less reacting properly to it.

What is the best way to understand context?  Work with your agency analytics team to analyze those macro trends.  Work with your key publishers to understand the trends affecting their audience.  Work with your data provider to layer that information over the top of your campaign, and learn to optimize often enough to catch those changes in your planning process.  If you do these three things, you’ll have a step up over your competition.

3 comments about "Data Without Context Is Noise".
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  1. Kim Garretson from RealizingInnovation, July 27, 2016 at 11:04 a.m.

    Great post Cory. I would like to add another 'best way' suggestion to your last paragraph: Embed technology that simply asks customers on their journeys for how you can help them. You can label the button Get Alerts, and then offer email and SMS reminders and notifications on criteria they set, like price changes, new models launched, future product release dates, and back in stock alerts. 30+ of the largest retailers are rolling this out this year, after realizing that with all the marketing spend to get consumers to their sites, there is less than a 2% conversion on product views because of the journeys. So now they are finally offering 1:1 personalized notifications on when those individual journeys can translate into a transaction.

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, July 27, 2016 at 11:04 a.m.

    Good one, Cory. While demographics and/or purchase behavior are useful indicators a far more valuable dimension is understanding the consumer's mindset and how it is evolving---or changing---over time. Mindset segments--like being style conscious or really concerned about health or being acutely price consciou--- which often interact as well as overlap are frequently used in fashioning brand positionning strategies and creating the ads, only to have media buying revert to overly simplistic demographics on the grounds that relevant data isn't available for media audiences. Actually it is but not from Nielsen, so alternative sources are universally ignored. Small wonder there is such a disconnect between media and branding at so many advertisers. They----the brands--- don't realize what opportunities they are missing.

  3. Robin Caller from LOLA GROVE, July 28, 2016 at 11:31 a.m.

    Cory, I encourage our staff and clients to use a different language for the same concepts. I think "context" really needs a greater definition if it is to be used as a stand-alone word.

    We talk about the "signals" and the "triggers" and the "compelling events" or "compelling reasons" that are relevant to the data sets. 

    For example, in the area of white paper production, we find that the target audience is often addressed and availed of information but that this is often entirely disconnected to what you refer to as context, and we refer to as the compelling reason that would lead to a "decision" being taken. Where advertising is concerned, the "decision" that most Advertisers seek appears to be "purchase decisions". 

    Hence, trigger events that lead to data subjects giving off signals which indicate they are in a decision making state seem to us to be the "context" of which you speak.

    I don't think i would go so far as saying that "all data is noise" without context, especially in light of a growing legislative and compliance backdrop that is pushing for the pre-requisite that the data is always obtained with explicit consent from data subjects.

    To that end, all the noise you refer to would be signal, albeit absent of the circumstantial triggers and events which would give their signal a context. 

    All the best from sunny London.

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