This week, as the creativity community gathers at Cannes Lions, the industry continues to experience the data-driven metamorphosis of marketing.
Step aside Mad Men. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, it's the data scientists who have the sexiest roles now.
It's no wonder. Big data is mesmerizing – especially for marketers. We're charmed by the mystery of what's waiting to be discovered. What secret affinity can we uncover in streams of tweets, Facebook posts and clicks on our mobile phone? What customer experience breakthrough will come from mashups of digital footprints, call center records and transaction data?
Sounds exciting, right? But I have to ask: Is it working this way in your marketing organization? My guess is, probably not.
As it turns out, you've got plenty of company. In a recent IBM study, "Marketing Science: from Predictive to Descriptive," only 23% of marketers surveyed claim to be highly effective at using data to uncover new insights.
Wait, it gets worse. In this age of big data and sophisticated analytics, more than 80% of marketers admit they still rely mainly on experience and hunches to make decisions. They're stuck in a time warp, channeling their inner Don Draper.
So, how can we as marketers break the stalemate, and move from "gut feeling" to a more scientific approach to making decisions? Here are three suggestions:
--Be open to science: You may have seen the research by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in "Thinking, Fast and Slow," showing the fallacy of expert intuition. As it turns out, professional stock pickers exhibit results far closer to throwing dice than playing poker. Economic and political pundits predict events just about as accurately as random guesses. And when shown the same X-ray on different occasions, experienced radiologists change their assessments 20% of the time. Auditors, psychologists and parole judges are just as inconsistent.
Despite such overwhelming evidence, experts allow the "illusion of skill" to stoke their confidence levels. Marketers are no exception.
You've heard it before. We know our customers. We can read market tea leaves. We're uncannily clairvoyant about competitive moves. And like the Wall Street investment managers and the clinical psychologists Kahneman writes about, our subjective judgments tend to be just as flawed.
It's time we give science a shot. Be open to what it can reveal, even when it conflicts with our gut.
--Don't cede control to the machines: At the same time though, we can't swing to the other extreme. There's a scary misconception brewing, that clever computers, fed with massive amounts of big data, will just spit out answers and make decisions for us. As Nate Silver points out in "The Signal and the Noise," if you look for patterns in huge data sets, you'll find them -- but are they real? Do they matter?
At the same time, marketing data flows nonstop from sellers, supply chains and a growing parade of social inputs like Pinterest boards, Tumblr blogs and Yelp check-ins. The data has never been noisier, and we must be wary of false positives. Marketers need to excel at analytics so they can ask the right questions and vet seductive "insights" through scientific testing.
--Tackle some unsexy to-dos: To find that middle ground, where big data is beneficial and not distracting, we need to step into the role of marketing scientist:
- First, marketers need to get better at "architecting" data to make sense of it.
- It's also important to nurture a more scientific nature. Testing hypotheses and staging experiments should be routine.
- And third, it's necessary to build a reputation for having sound evidence to convince C-suite leaders to act on insights.
None of these are glamorous activities. But they're important, kind of like brushing your teeth.
So why does this all matter? It's not just about improving marketing campaigns. What about increasing a product line's gross profit through pricing optimization? Or upping win rates through predictive analysis of client touches?
Simply put, marketing science is about delivering better business results. Now that's sexy.