Data Vs. Intuition: Why Your Marketing Needs That Human Touch

Intuitive marketing means knowing when to move past the data

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Many of us have experienced the phenomenon of deadlocked decision-making. Whole projects held up at the mercy of contradictory indications and data prognostication. The team decides to go in one direction, but data redirects the project. Once the ship has turned, new data redirects it again. A team can find its project spinning in circles, lost to a sea of spreadsheets, without a clear course.

Data has become so big and can dominate a process so heavily, in some cases, that it can be easy to forget how to move something forward simply because it feels like the right thing to do.

We reached out to Carey Nadeau, Founder and CEO of Open Data Nation, a social benefit corporation that combines open, public data with data science techniques to increase transparency and productivity of public agencies. For the past decade, she’s done quantitative research and analysis using open data. Her world is all about establishing data-driven performance metrics. So, we thought her point of view on the data/intuition conversation might lean toward the data side of things when it comes to marketing decision making. But that’s not where our data scientist landed.

Quantitative analysis isn’t possible without the influence of qualitative information

“When I was young,” says Nadeau, “I knew the quantitatively minded person would be superior to the qualitatively minded individual. As I’ve gotten older, have become wiser, I know that the best quantitatively minded people understand qualitative social science.”

She went on to say that she relies on people who “understand how the world works.” She believes that people “who think like humans and not like mathematicians,” are better able to identify predictive variables.

“You can’t just math the world,” she joked.

“As a statistician, I’m not great at perceiving the world around me,” she says, “but we rely on people who are great [at perceiving the world around them] to tell us where to look.” Even companies that identify as being data driven, will find their success in how well they’re able to tap into their qualitative research and hire people who understand the world around them in qualitative ways.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics,” Mark Twain once wrote. “You can prove anything with statistics.” As a consumer, you’ve probably seen a statistic or two that seemed to come from a narrow-minded view, was suspiciously self-serving, or at worst, intentionally misleading. Data can be arranged in such a way as to make the case you wish to make. So making good data-driven marketing decisions means never doing to this yourself.

Don’t take a balanced approach

Instead, find harmony in how one informs the other.

Nadeau argues that it’s not about finding a balance between data and intuition. They’re not always meant to be used in equal parts. “It’s not about vacillating between data and feelings. It’s not about using data to understand our feelings, or to temper feelings. It’s about acknowledging the ways in which the two can work harmoniously.”

Data analysis should always be pointed toward a purpose

“You’re trying to create a story, and stories aren’t born from analysis,” says Nadeau, “they require a narrative.” The narrative comes first, and it’s borne of first applying qualitative perceptions to an issue (augmenting an idea based on observation or experience), developing a thesis or hypothesis, and deploying to test with numbers.

The narrative you develop may come from a hunch or a common-sense appraisal, it might come through research of what’s worked in the past on similar issues; it may be derived from a combination of factors including and especially granular CRM data, and enhanced by good old fashioned business-savvy. But in the end, the development of the narrative relies on traditional creativity. Hundreds of books have been written on how to be a creative marketer, and thousands more on how to be creative in general. In today’s digital mobile-focused marketing world, tapping into creativity means hiring people with talent who can think for themselves, valuing people who have ideas and aren’t mere number crunchers.

A case for acting against the data

There are instances where taking action based on the results of certain data could do more harm than good.

Data, for example, might point to targeting a certain ethnic group in a certain way, but common sense might dictate that to do so might come off tone deaf or hint at xenophobia.

The data might point in one direction, but that has to be balanced with other considerations like how your organization interacts with its community. There should be room within an organization to make some accommodations for things that are important to that organization, and to honor values and ethics. “The qualitative info you collect, or other things not data-based,” says Nadeau, “can trump what the data says.”

Reverting to common sense

In interpreting mushy results, it helps to keep an eye toward your business. If you’ve turned over most every stone in search of a data-driven answer to a problem, and you’re still getting ambiguous results, it might be in your best interest to move onto the next thing.

The data isn’t an oracle. It doesn’t hold answers to every question. “You may be searching for a diamond in the rough, and there may be no diamond there.” If the options that are available to you show no real difference from one another; “if you can do any of the above, and you’re getting the same results, there might be a real business question,” about whether it makes sense to continue in this vein. At this point, is there a business case for continuing to explore something that isn’t yielding results? Measure the resources you’re devoting to the task against the hoped-for results to see if your energetic investment will have a decent return.

Separating data from customer interests

Customers don’t care about data. They care about the problem you’re solving for them.

I’m a data scientist,” says Nadeau, “but I also run a company.” For example, in her line of work, she understands that city agencies (her clients) don’t care, per se, about various violations. They care about the money the city has to spend on handling these violations. So her focus becomes: how to save her clients money while also keeping residents safe.

Like any marketer, she has to consider what factors are right to the audience. She focuses on understanding what the customer or audience wants, and makes those relationships the priority.

Data and common sense: allies not enemies

We can’t un-know or un-see all the data that’s available to us, nor should we. It would be short sighted to return entirely to the gut-instinct-based Mad Menesque style of advertising that dominated in the middle of the last century. (It required the employ of unpredictable and hard to come by geniuses, anyway.) Products are vastly different now, consumers have different expectations, and besides, data provides us the ability to test small before we go big, and adjust incrementally so that ideas and campaigns are living things that can grow and change as the data comes in.

Like all things, to achieve a marketing message that’s highly attuned with your customer, a bit of consonance is required. A harmonious approach wins the day. Check out our companion post: Data Vs. Intuition: How To Approach Data for Great Marketing.

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