Don't Get Caught up in Digital Data Without a Clear Vision

Even Back in the Analog Days, Numbers Had No Inherent Meaning

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If you're like most CMOs I know, you've probably got this love/hate thing going with digital media and reporting tools.

On one hand, digital is a clarity engine, in that it demands by its very binary function the expression of "yes" or "no." Numbers are incontrovertibly numeric, so questions of who, what, where, when and why are limited to answers with the precision of how much. This is good news for planning and tracking scenarios, and it's how other corporate departments operate (so digital makes it feel like we're all singing from the same spreadsheet). Sure, numbers miss stuff that's important -- like the miracle of a perfect fifth or the warmth of love expressed -- but if poetry really mattered to the business, we'd have already translated it into a number and featured it in every quarterly report, wouldn't we?

No, the "hate" side of our relationship with all things digital isn't that numbers are incomplete, it's that numbers have no inherent meaning -- which means that they're usually misunderstood or misused.

Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin is the author of "Branding Only Works on Cattle" and blogs about marketing at Dim Bulb.

Consider that marketing dashboard on your computer screen: Numbers flash via VU-like meters and scorecards, percentages change and you can click through to details or subsets of data. It's supposed to be a real-time window on the real world, so you can see all the moving parts that constitute your marketing plan (or at least its digitally delivered components) and manage them accordingly.

Only it's not real; it's a model, based on the attributes you or your digital vendor decided should be included. The numbers are inputs that have been plugged into the system. When you add more of them, it doesn't mean you've similarly increased your knowledge or even your perspective: More numbers mean more numbers, nothing else. They may appear contiguously on your screen or even change based on some intelligence in your app, but that doesn't describe any real connection. Your dashboard lets you manipulate them, but not touch the underlying reality.

Quantified information is no more a pathway to truth than qualified observations were a detour. When you extrapolate from your data, you're constructing a "could be" on top of an "if this." Digital campaigns and reports aren't inherently any better than our old analog models. They've just got sharper edges.

The problem isn't technology but rather a failure of strategic vision. Digital stuff is alluring and frightening, and we've been dared to embrace it by a Greek Chorus of enablers who incessantly yell, "Do it faster and more often, or you'll be out of a job." Lots of the successes promoted as cases to emulate are nothing more than self-fulfilling prophecies for selling digital services: Campaigns are invented to prompt the numbers (time spent online, clicks, whatever) that will satisfy everyone's need for, well, numbers.

So before you approve that next sleek digital campaign, challenge your team to better understand the real-world actions that truly matter to your business, along with the, yes, qualitative levers that enable them. Decide to deliver and measure the actions that make sense, instead of changing your definitions and expectations to make sense out of what matters to the campaign (or flashes brightest on your dashboard).

It's OK to love the promise of digital and hate the prospect that it could be a waste of your time, irrespective of what the numbers say.

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