There I was, in the middle of a nudist beach trying to sell swimwear. At least, that’s how I was feeling, hosting a roundtable where one of the delegates proudly boasted: “They would never consider an idea if it didn’t have the data to back it up”. The table had all nodded in agreement. Without thinking, I reacted by asking “Don’t you think that’s sad?” They looked back at me with shock and derision. I stuffed my metaphorical trunks back into my bag and moved the conversation on.

In hindsight, I wish I’d asked, “How do you feel about ignoring your responsibility as marketing professionals?” because in my view that’s exactly what was happening.

Data can sink you

Data, no matter how big, should never replace the experience of humans. Individuals who, sadly, let data lead their lives, be their boss, parent, stylist and co-driver will, unfortunately, become the losers.

Throughout the years, we have witnessed more and more people growing increasingly comfortable with data-driven tools – and these are not just data geeks. The truth is that data and everything associated with it has become a major part of our lives, as consumers and professionals. However, the true champions are those individuals who use data to keep up to date with trends but don’t take it for granted and are willing to question its validity.

I’ve seen ridiculous cases of data driving people’s lives – sometimes literally. There was the story about a Canadian woman who drove her car into a lake because her sat nav had misguided her. Humans are now beginning to rely on technology rather than on their own common sense and this is exactly what this daft woman had done. She stopped driving her car and began letting her car drive her. She trusted data to the point that it literally drove her into the lake because the thought of saying ‘that can’t be right’ to her sat nav was harder than diving into the water at 35 miles per hour.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against using or owning a sat nav; it is a very convenient tool when you are trying to find your destination and reduces the stress of the journey. However, when individuals begin relying on the technology rather than on their own common sense, it becomes a problem.

Questioning data

The programmatic winners are those that question data and see it as both the hero and the villain. Using data to understand what is currently trending and highlighting key opportunities while not letting it take over your research is the perfect balance to keep you ashore in the pool of data. It’s great to be rich in data but it’s a problem when you begin to drown in it. Many companies collate and store big data; however, they might not know how to put it to beneficial use.

When it comes to engaging customers, for example, use the data you have collected to create a more pleasurable, personalised experience. Employing this tool can create a customised shopping experience for your clients and can even offer product recommendations. Once you begin to question data, that’s when you will potentially receive more from it. There also comes a point when you may have too much information on a customer. When businesses act like a stalker, customers often lose trust and interest in them, so it’s important that you’re not too forward when it comes to approaching your audience.

To understand why we need to question data, just look at the polls before Britain left the EU. Most Brits were expecting to go into the month of July still securely part of the 28-country alliance. Well, this is what the data led us to believe anyway. Instead, we re-learnt that people do lie, people don’t like to share every detail of their lives and data polls don’t deliver concrete, categoric results. We all woke up on the morning of 23 June 2016 and had to endure a smug Nigel Farage tell us that we’d done the right thing. Bad data obviously isn’t the reason we voted to leave the EU, but what fascinates me is just how inaccurate the information behind the polls was. Given this, many of us are still happy to rely on it or believe in it as it seems like the easy option. We’ve been sold this silly ideology that the simplest solution is the right answer. However, the world is too complex for this to be true.

Drawing the line

There’s no doubt data can help your company target the right people. When it comes to areas like retention models, the value is obvious. Here, data clearly brings many more powerful tools to the table and has lots of uses. However, when it comes to creativity, it’s easy for data to corrupt our essence of being human. We allow numbers and words to tell us what our clients want to hear, and we let it tell us what we want, without questioning its reliability. The sooner you understand that data is a sidekick and you are the hero, the sooner you will be able to gain more customers loyal to your business. You cannot let the data overtake you and your ideas. As soon as you ditch your ideas because of data, you’ve lost.

I agree that giving data a true definition is a complicated task. It seems like everyone in the marketing world right now is absorbed in data-driven decision making. Understandably, it would be ignorant to make any professional claim without the backing of some sort of research. However, there’s a fine line of interpretation between letting data back or build your claim and letting it steer and take over your claim.  

So if I were to sum it up, I would say data is best used in a business when:

  • It serves a purpose which is defined clearly in advance;
  • It is interpreted objectively, not just to prove a hypothesis or a pattern;You’re not afraid of asking challenging questions or flexing your approach.
  • You’re not afraid of asking challenging questions or flexing your approach.

Data is a great servant.

Data is a terrible master.