The benefits of a data-driven approach to marketing has been a hot topic during the last years. Your LinkedIn feed is probably filled with articles and blog posts disclosing the secret hacks behind terms like user behavior, conversion rates, keyword research, metrics on competitors, backlink profiles, engagement, heat maps, and you are given a million reasons why you would be stupid not to use this information. This combined with senior management obsessing about data and analytics, it is increasingly challenging for marketers to dare to follow a “hunch”. But does this mean that good ol’ gut feeling, which used to separate good marketers from bad ones, has played out its role? We believe not. In this post, we give five reasons for why they should do it anyway.
Benefits of a data-driven approach
Data can help us with what is essentially the most important aspect of marketing: the customers – their preferences, habits, pain points, backgrounds and more. The days of mass marketing are gone thanks to data that helps us target more or less exactly who we want to convert. We are now doing more with less, and much more efficiently than during the days when mass mailing, advertising and telemarketing were our only available channels. Data-driven marketing also improves the quality of our campaigns and products. We have more clarity on how to separate and group target audiences and we can offer our customers personalised experiences.
Seen like that, it seems absurd not to jump on the bandwagon for a data-driven approach to marketing. But is there a risk that we are overdoing it?
Never mind the fact that many marketing departments claim to be data-driven when in fact they are not (there are criteria to be followed, and most marketers don’t). Being data-driven is difficult. It is hard to find the right team of people who are knowledgeable and specialized in things like predictive analytics and amplification. In order to get a unified customer view, marketers need to struggle against department silos. Having an organisation where the data is not only of high quality but also coherent over departments, is also challenging. Finally, being truly data-driven requires a commitment and a conviction that many department heads simply do not have. It would be easy to discard this as limitations and place our hopes on new generations of marketers with a different mindset, but perhaps there is more to it than this.
Perhaps being too data-driven, especially if it implies an eradication of the human factor, is counter-productive to the goals we want to achieve.
Here are five risks with being too data-driven:
1. Data can turn you into a validation junkie.
Can we prove that this ad worked? What does the data from previous campaigns say? What worked and how can we do it again? These are all valid and relevant questions, but they also bear the risk that you will only look backwards and not dare to try anything new. There is also a risk of a false sense of accomplishment when you look at social shares, clicks and likes and mistake them for true engagement. Getting stuck at the top of the funnel -because this is the easiest part to quantify – could mean that you miss out on new ways of connecting with your customers. Essentially, quantifiable validation is a good way to make decisions, but it is not the only one, and perhaps not even the best one.
2. Data is a creativity-killer.
If gut feeling always has to step back for “cold hard facts”, this could imply a decrease in original ideas. It could also mean that you end up doing exactly the same thing as your competitors because their data – mined from the same caves – has told them to implement the same strategy as you. In the end of the day, data is not creative and it cannot make the imaginative leaps that the human mind can. Nor can it interpret, compare and contrast, make judgments, give context or tell stories around the results it produces. This all has to be done by humans and it all has to involve creativity and imaginative thinking.
3. Gut feeling is in fact data-driven.
Gut-feelings are themselves informed by previous experiences, memories of cause and effect, context and stories shared by others. In other words, gut feeling is information processing and it is data-driven. What the brain actually does when it sends out a gut feeling, research suggests, is to compare incoming sensory information with stored memories of past experiences in order to predict outcomes. Thanks to this predictive function, our brains can make informed decisions about the future – unconsciously and automatically – s a subconscious match (or mismatch) between our past experiences and current sensory information. This also explains why having plenty of experience in one area makes your gut feeling more reliable. Basically, the more data you have stored, i.e. the more experiences you have gathered, the more sound your predictive analysis should be. Naturally, this depends on many other things, like your self-awareness, your cognitive ability to learn from past experiences, the conclusions you have made from them etc. The data-set is there, but some people are better at using it than others.
4. Data is not value-driven, but you might be.
Your vision and values are an important part of the business and marketing decisions you make and this can be difficult to quantify. You might want to avoid a certain type of advertising, even if data shows it is the most efficient kind, or you might want to try a new product, which you believe in for ethical or aesthetic reasons, but whose success is difficult to assess because it is a first-timer. Although it is a challenge to use marketing data in cases that are not quantifiable, in the end it all comes down to using data with a purpose and adapting metrics to your particular aim.
5. Data-driven is a myth.
The large majority of digital marketers would claim that they are data-driven, but are they really? Using data correctly is a hard job. First, you need to know what questions to ask from the data. Rather than being data-driven, it is your job to drive the data with the right questions. Many marketers fall into the trap of asking questions in order to get the answers they already know they want. They are also afraid of looking for incoherences and contradictions, which is often where the most interesting learnings are made. What’s more, getting your hands on up-to-date, coherent and high-quality data is extremely hard, and unless you are really good at this, there is no point in calling yourself data-driven. Finally, the person interpreting the data for marketing purposes needs to be very skilled. According to the CMO Council, only 7 percent of the marketers who participated in their survey stated that they were capable of leveraging in-line analytics to drive real-time decision-making within the engagement platform. In the end, this kind of skill stems from gut-feeling or experience. As Taylor Ryan, CMO at Valuer.ai and instructor at Talent Garden explains, “They don’t teach this stuff in schools. Nobody is picking up these skills anywhere other than in the practice”.
Using data is great if it is done with the right expectations and within the right framework.
“When you start to realize that you can increase the potential for success/favorable outcomes by doing a little leg work up front, there’s value in that. It’s not that you get to see the future or anything like that, but you’re mitigating risk by having more information to make a better decision” says Taylor Ryan.
It also helps you to cut through the bullshit, by being able to back up your hunches with numbers. The original idea, however, has to start from your hunch.
Undoubtedly, there is much to be said for bringing back gut-feeling in marketing. It helps you set strategies, pick innovative content, make quicker decisions, interpret data better and it will add the human factor which sets you apart from other marketers. Plus gut-feeling itself is data-driven, so the two are not mutually exclusive. “Marketing will always be part science and part art” states Taylor Ryan.
So, next time your data is telling you no, but your gut is telling you yes, at least take a second look at that data and remember to add a human touch. You are about to market your product or service to other human beings after all.