Data Is Great, But You Need to Learn When to Ignore It

Obsession With Data Can Be Counterproductive

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Who can resist the temptation of real-time marketing performance data? I can't. Whether we've posted a video on YouTube or started to promote a Facebook page, it's hard to stop clicking the refresh button throughout the day to watch the number of "views" and "likes" increase.

I love digging into the analytics on our agency website to see the most popular search engine terms, the page view trends, the top traffic referrers and the amount of time visitors are spending on the site. I'm intrigued by the new suite of metrics that Facebook has introduced, and I enjoy the process of optimizing online ads based on the sites, sizes and creative executions that perform best.

It's not surprising that most people in the marketing business feel the same way: after all, we live in a society that loves to keep score. From the time we're old enough to comprehend the merits of earning a gold star, we're conditioned to want instant, quantified validation of our success. But as marketers, it's possible that our obsession with data has become counterproductive.

Simply put, the fact that one can measure something doesn't mean that one should, and the fact that something is quantifiable doesn't necessarily make it paramount to something that isn't. Yet most marketers seem determined to measure anything and everything, regardless of the utility of the data, and some are so obsessed with KPIs that they unwittingly (or worse, wittingly) compromise the real-world impact of their marketing activities in order to move the needles on their performance dashboards.

I realize I'm not introducing a new perspective; others have voiced similar concerns about the perils of data obsession. Unfortunately, those of us who are proponents of balancing quantitative and qualitative measurement—that is , seeing the trees and the forest—have generally been unsuccessful at converting analytics enthusiasts. So while I may not be suggesting an entirely new paradigm, I hope to frame this point-of -view in a way that inspires the non-believers to reevaluate their position.

To that end, consider the following metaphor: optimizing marketing activities based entirely or even predominantly on quantitative measures is a Ponzi scheme. Expanding on that theme, metrics such as "Likes," "Views," "Shares," "CTR" and "Page views," are "paper wealth" that may or may not be backed by actual currency of tangible value such as increased awareness, affinity, purchase intent or sales. And the more paper wealth one creates, the more "schemes" one must implement to meet inflated prior-year benchmarks. While this approach may enable agencies and marketing managers to create impressive charts and graphs for a few months or even a few years, eventually the "investors" (CMOs, CEOs, and actual investors) are going to come looking for their money. And when that day comes, no Excel document or pie chart will be an acceptable proxy—nor should it be.

Admittedly, this matter isn't black and white. But while there's a broad spectrum of gray area within which "paper value" translates into tangible value at varying exchange rates, I'm making a mutually exclusive distinction between the two in an effort to streamline my argument. And my argument is this: I'd rather have 10,000 views of a branded video that increases purchase intent than a million views of a video that simply makes people laugh; I'd rather have a .02 CTR on a banner ad that drives highly qualified and motivated traffic to my site than a 2.0 CTR on a banner ad that tricks disinterested consumers to my site; I'd rather have 25 thoughtful comments on a Facebook status update that 's related to my brand than 250 comments on an update about the various reasons to bemoan Mondays.

To be clear, I understand how EdgeRank and search engines work, and why, consequently, some amount of "gaming the system" may be required to ensure a brand's message is seen; we're all at the mercy of algorithms, and Google and Facebook have inspired many of the manipulations marketers have deployed in their efforts to garner impressions and promote consumer actions.

Furthermore, because I believe brands should behave like humans (not corporations) when using social media, I support efforts to connect with consumers by initiating conversations about current events, pop culture and other topics not directly related to an advertisers product or service. I'm simply suggesting that marketers have to understand the cause of the numbers they hold so dearly. After all, if people are spending less time on a website that 's recently been redesigned, it may be because the new architecture has made it easier for them to find what they're looking for.

Of course, there are many reasons and ways to tip the digital scales in a brand's favor. But marketers who get caught up in "gaming the system" end up competing for first prize in a contest that only rewards them with "paper value." In much the same way that Bernie Madoff borrowed money from one investor to pay dividends to another, they end up borrowing equity from one place to represent it in another. And like borrowed money, "borrowed interest" is not a brand's to keep.

Mike Wolfsohn is co-founder and chief creative officer at High Wide & Handsome. You can follow him on Twitter at @Mike_Wolfsohn
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