New Year's Resolution: Don't Let Big Data Kill Storytelling

As agencies, nearing the end of the year often means that our thinking moves to center around data, recapping, reporting, forecasting and P&L — as people, it often means that we start thinking of New Year’s Resolutions.

Who do we want to be in 2017? Where did we stray from our goals over the course of the past 12 months, and how can we course-correct? These are useful thoughts and can set the stage for a goal-setting exercise for individuals to adopt; and it can be for companies, as well.

So I’ll throw out a simple New Year’s Resolution that I think is a relevant goal to consider for marketers of all shapes and sizes, and one I plan on adopting for my own agency — and that is to refuse to let big data kill storytelling.

It happens all the time in sports marketing — planners and buyers craft intricate media plans to reach the exact right consumer, using sports as the unparalleled platform of interest that it is, but they lose them in the messaging. In any vertical, but especially in sports, it’s important to not only reach consumers on the correct channel, but to tell the correct story for that channel as well. If you’re reaching Gen Y women in the Midwest who love college football with your media, but you aren’t reaching them with your story, you’ve missed the point.

But in this brave new world of all-seeing numbers, it can be tempting to rely solely on cold calculation and lose sight of storytelling.

That goes equally for conceptual work and for recapping of work, but I believe it may even start before that. Consumer-facing storytelling is what we’re constantly striving to achieve, but the beginning of the story comes internally.

MS PowerPoint, for worse or for worse, has rewired the way that we think about the presentation of information. Too often, we use MS PowerPoint wrong — becoming so reliant on data and recapping that even in reporting our own campaigns we can be limiting ourselves to slide after slide of number after number.

But, numbers can only hope to set the stage for a story. They introduce characters and settings, but it’s insight that creates action. It’s human insight that tells an actionable story.

I get it. I work every day in media planning and buying. I know how hard it can be to pull back from the spreadsheets and tracking tools in which we’ve invested so much and trust our gut. Teams and clients need to hire data-minded individuals who are comfortable with following their gut, with using data to enrich their storytelling — not tell the story for them.

That’s a lesson that was hard-learned for many this year when marketers, who’d recalibrated their compasses to point to data (and away from their gut), found out that data can’t always be trusted. In early Q3, it was revealed that Facebook had been over-reporting video ad views by as much as 60 to 80 percent for the entire time that they had been offering video ads. During the two years in which they misreported their engagement numbers, entire media strategies at times grew to be built around them. It was a bubble bursting, no doubt, but also a wake-up call.

When, perhaps, the biggest vendor leading the charge on hyper-targeted digital video ads is exposed, it might be time to rethink the whole strategy.

Or simply to keep in mind that the old ways still have value.

Too often, the availability of data and the ability to use it over-informs media investment and under-informs creative. Instead of using the opportunity to assess and test creative by the same standards we do media targeting, we simply get more clinical in our media buying — and, unfortunately, clinical in our messaging, too.

Hyper-targeting doesn’t mean that storytelling is less important — it means that telling more diverse stories is more important! The creative still must be tailored to that channel and consumer. The KPIs and the purpose must be tweaked to be consistent with the path that they take to the consumer.

Remember, data without actionable insight is just noise. The distraction, along with poor tools to tell our stories, causes us to lose focus and attention on what matters most —  providing consumers with real value.

Marketers who win in 2017 will do so by applying their trusted experience and data equally, using numbers to inform creative, not by using numbers as an excuse for bad work. They’ll win by recognizing that storytelling begins internally and by thinking of data as only useful if accompanied by human and emotional insight. They’ll win by pulling their heads out of spreadsheets every now and again and telling better stories.

But only if they keep their resolutions.

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