You Can Love Your Marketing Data, Just Don’t Fall Under Its Spell

I admit it: I have a conflicted relationship with data. I Love Data

On the plus side, I believe that data is one of the three biggest benefits that the digitization of the world has given us marketers. (The other two are malleability, the ability to easily change, experiment with and personalize the digital canvas, and intimacy, more direct interactions with customers.)

I believe that good, data-driven decision-making can compensate for many of our irrational mental biases and lead us to better outcomes.

And, I believe that every modern marketer should become adept at using data properly. If you’re not harnessing data to make your marketing programs better, you’re missing the 21st century.

Data Fundamentals Vs. Data Fundamentalism

However, I don’t believe that data has all the answers. In particular, I get itchy when I hear people imply that data will generate their strategy or creative.

Analyzing the linguistic data of Harry Potter and The Cuckoo’s Calling to discover, with high probability, that Robert Galbraith was actually a pseudonym of J.K. Rowling is a great example of what data and machine learning can do. Actually writing Harry Potter or The Cuckoo’s Calling is a good example of what they cannot do.

I believe that data can provide the inspiration for new ideas in strategy and creative, especially when we take an exploratory approach to all the data we have available to us. And, I believe that data, especially in the context of a controlled experiment, can provide validation for those new ideas.

But, I do not believe that strategy and creative will predictably emerge from the data of their own accord. On the supposed end of theory that big data will bring us, I call, um, malarkey.

Kate Crawford wrote a blog post on the Harvard Business Review site last year, The Hidden Biases in Big Data, where she labeled this unrealistic faith in data to have all the answers as “data fundamentalism.”

I believe in data fundamentals — using data in the right way, in the right context. But I eschew data fundamentalism. Knowing what data cannot do is equally as important as knowing what it can.

The Map & The Territory

I also get itchy when people claim that data is truth. How many times have you been in a meeting where someone brandishes a statistic to “prove” their point of view — without weighing the caveats and context in which that statistic was calculated? Things like selection bias, sample size, confidence intervals, and confounding variables matter.

Statistics show that people love content marketing. But do the characteristics of the content matter? Do the characteristics of the audience matter? (Hint: yes and yes.)

An often repeated phrase, attributed to Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski, comes immediately to mind: “The map is not the territory.”

Just because someone drew a map of a mountain, doesn’t mean that is how the mountain actually is in reality. The map is obviously a simplification — otherwise the map would be as big as the mountain itself. So, there inherently must be many things missing from it. Things may have changed since the map was drawn, say, due to an avalanche or an earthquake. Or the cartographer may simply have made errors — in observation, in translation, in judgment or in drawing the map itself.

The practical wisdom of Korzybski’s insight: if you come to a cliff, don’t keep walking just because the map says there’s a bridge there.

I’m not saying that maps aren’t helpful. They’re incredibly helpful. But when you’re driving to dinner, I would recommend not keeping your eyes glued solely to your GPS. Checking out your windshield for oncoming traffic is probably a smart idea, too. (An analogy that I must credit to Gord Hotchkiss.)

This is the same healthy skepticism that marketers should bring to their use of data. Data isn’t always true, and even when it is, it’s almost never the whole truth.

Let’s Not Be Rash

I know, this may not be a popular point of view in an “Analytics” column. And I should probably talk to my doctor about all these itching sensations.

So let me reiterate: data is a wonderful thing. The intelligent use of analytics is an incredible skill for a marketer to wield — and an immensely powerful asset for an organization to have within its ranks.

But recognizing the limitations of data — and the cognitive biases that arise as much from using data as they do from not using it — will make you a better analyst, a better marketer and more fun at parties.

You can love your data. Just don’t fall under its spell.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Analytics & Marketing Column | Channel: Analytics | Statistics | Statistics: General


About The Author: is the president and CTO of ion interactive, a leading provider of landing page management and conversion optimization software. He also writes a blog on marketing technology, Chief Marketing Technologist. Follow him on twitter via @chiefmartec.

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  • Christine Noh

    Please do not use “data” and “incorrect usage of data” interchangeably. people should rely on data as much as possible, as it is the only rational solution to our questions. Obviously, intelligent people will approach any set of data or study with a sense of skepticism, while others will ignore biases, create wrong assumptions/conclusions, and exaggerate findings. But calling for people to disregard science and statistical facts because of a tendency to misunderstand it is doing nothing to help the issue. and I believe it is a serious one. instead of having a love hate relationship with data, we need to educate ourselves in logical fallacies, marketing quackery, as well as how to develop an awareness for intentionally misleading data. I believe data .. the CORRECT application of data.. can absolutely drive strategy and a vision for any company. and many great companies such as google for instance in their POPS lab are already doing it

  • Dan Freeman

    You mention that a healthy skepticism should be used by
    marketers with respect to their use of data and I completely agree. I also want
    to point out that the same healthy dose of skepticism should be used by
    consumers when confronted by marketers’ “data driven” claims.

    How many times have you seen software vendors make a claim along
    the lines of…“companies that use (fill-in-the-blank) experience xx% higher revenues”?

    OK, so I guess the assumption is that (fill-in-the-blank) caused the higher revenues.
    However, it’s equally plausible the higher revenues caused the company to use fill-in-the-blank. More likely is this: Although correlation exists, causation is the result of a
    multitude of unknown factors.

  • Scott Brinker

    Thank you — glad to hear this resonated with you!

  • Scott Brinker

    I feel like we’re violently in agreement?

  • Scott Brinker

    Absolutely. An excellent point.

    Don’t get me started on a rant about the poor methodology being used in so many vendor-run “studies” that “prove” their sales pitch.

    My favorite version of that is sending out a survey to content marketers and then reporting, based on their participation, that “90% of marketers are using content marketing.” It would be more accurate to say that 90% of content marketers are using content marketing. Which begs the question, why are the other 10% not?

    Oops, I’m ranting.

  • Grant

    A common mistake that I see marketers commit is assuming that more data gives you better view of or accuracy about the real world results. And as marketers, we have A TON of data, and it’s so tempting to be able to support your results by saying things like “after aggregating 2 million (or billion) data points, here is our result” – if the your approach has any of the biases you mentioned, have more data doesn’t take the bias away – in some cases it makes them even worse.


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