Why Buying Stuff That Won't Get You Fired Will Get You Fired

Marketers' Overreliance on Data Has Clouded Their Thinking

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Let's face it -- technology makes us dependent. And frankly, that's its purpose. Take GPS for example. I still remember the days when scribbled napkin maps and those impossible folding road atlases were the best directions you could get. Then came turn-by-turn GPS. We were given the gift of an infallible navigator, but in exchange we lost our sense of direction. We can go anywhere we want, but we don't really know where anything is. Don't believe me? Try driving across town without your smartphone.

GPS is only one example of a transformative technology that has redefined our relationship with the world in the last 20 years. Data is another.

Advances in our ability to collect, parse and extract insights from large data sets have influenced virtually every industry in the digital age, especially advertising. As marketers and advertisers, we believe data can lead us to the best decisions and outcomes. Although data provides insight, the truth is, an overreliance on data clouds our thinking.

Like our digital navigators, data has made us far too dependent, and our decision making is suffering. Data tells only half the story. We have forgotten about the people who receive the messages we create -- ourselves.

Buying the stuff that won't get you fired

This happens all too often. Marketers optimize for select outcomes because the data said so. If it's mobile, we want engagement. Online, we need eyeballs. Using data to select campaign focus has merit, but without first understanding the customer's journey to purchase, marketers' strategies are fundamentally flawed.

Social media may have referred a user to your company's website, but that doesn't mean other channels had no influence. What's more likely is that other print ads, billboards or marketing efforts primed the user to click. If you haven't done your homework, the data would simply tell you to buy more social media ads.

Overestimating data and underestimating human behavior

I see briefs come across my desk looking to advertise to women ages 35-55 -- and that's it. Nothing more specific to drive strategy. This is the way advertising has traditionally been done: select a demographic and cast a wide net. It's a shotgun approach that can be costly. Data may make this approach appear more accurate, but that is a misconception. Data alone does not tell the customer's whole story.

What's needed is an additional layer of behavioral understanding, and a dash of human intuition.

Take new cars and cheeseburgers for instance. Both are purchased by women ages 35-55 certainly, but the advertising strategies couldn't be more different. You don't need data to tell you the decision to buy a car takes longer than a decision to buy a cheeseburger. It makes sense then that when selling these products we would apply two completely different strategies. That intuition does not come from data, rather our own personal experience. It's a matter of understanding human behavior and the way we make decisions.

Marketers have become stalkers, not the concierges they should be

Marketers today often use data to stalk, not serve. Instead of using data to create new, rich experiences with brands, marketers track consumers' every click across the web. There is still a pair of socks following me online, and I purposefully haven't cleared my cookies to see how long it goes on. It's been two months and counting. This brute-force strategy has worked quite well in recent years, and as a result, much of the creativity in advertising has disappeared. Advertisers are opting for highly personalized (and persistent) recommendations, as opposed to creative ads that actively engage consumers.

Marketers must remember that they are consumers, too. When thinking about how to reach your audience and drive a sale, think about the purchase of your product or service from a human-centric point of view. Don't use data to place the same, tired ads on every link a consumer visits. Instead, define the action you want consumers to take, then create ads that facilitate that action in an interesting way. As Stephen Covey would say, "begin with the end in mind."

Remember, data is a means to an end, not the end itself. The statement I'm reminded of is this: "People use data like a drunk uses a lamppost -- for support rather than illumination." The goal is to create new brand experiences and interactions, and ultimately make people's lives better. Listening to data can help, but we can't forget we are all human -- and at the end of the day, humans know humans best.