Data is Overrated

It’s impossible to go 10 minutes in this industry without hearing someone preaching the power of data. As an industry we have become obsessed with amassing data, crunching it, selling it and talking about it. We gather numbers and basic facts about online users and use tools that achieve accuracy when describing an audience.

But by itself this data fails to deliver to marketers the critical, intuitive understanding of an audience. Data allows us to see and count but not necessarily know our audience. Data is just crude material that needs to be processed into insight. That’s where the value lies. The current data fetish, however, makes many confuse data with true insight.

Case in point: Facebook recently introduced its new Page Insights tool, which promises to track the number of friends of fans and talked about issues on their pages. Based on this description, the deep intuitive understanding that brands will gain from this tool is a numerical value based on how many people follow their page online and how often they are talking about particular issues. Sounds like just more data.

The truth is we don’t need more data. The Internet could literally stop now and we’d have plenty. What we need is a deeper intuitive understanding of our audiences, and that understanding requires a little more effort. True insight takes much more work to cultivate, and it requires a certain level of interaction with the person or audience in question. It also requires — surprise! — people, talented analysts to make sense of these data points. That understanding is what determines who is a successful marketer and who isn’t.

Insight requires answering the “why” question. Why did you buy that? Why did you go to that event?  Why do you value that opinion so highly? It allows a person answering the question to reveal the values that underlie their decision — whether it’s a matter of a product’s price or a company’s concern for the environment or the person’s own need to maintain a certain image.

These insights are what brands and marketers are looking for. They deliver the knowledge that underlies the most effective ad campaigns, which really understood their audience: reaching people at the time and place where they are most likely to engage with a particular message.

Once you have this insight, you can then use it to enrich your data, creating a picture greater than either could alone. And that’s where real magic happens. For instance, you might find that green consumers spend more of their time on financial websites than they do on websites that talk about the environment. Or that heavy social media users spend less money online, are more motivated by the lowest price and are less likely to brand loyal, so you might want to reconsider the size of your ad budget dedicated to social marketing.

With insight you can also make better-informed decisions about the messaging of your campaign and speak to your audience in terms that will move them. For example, dads are more likely than non-dads to stop buying a particular product after a recall. If your brand is faced with a recall or product ‘crisis,’ imagine how much more effective your advertising and/or damage control could be with that type of knowledge paired with the ability to reach this audience online.

It’s not that data isn’t valuable – quite to the contrary, it’s essential to our business — but it should not be mistaken for understanding or insight. Ty McMahan said recently in a Wall Street Journal article, “The wealth of data available and the speed at which it can be analyzed and meaningfully applied is changing the advertising industry.”

Amassing more data won’t grow our businesses. Only insight will enable marketers to connect with a desired audience on a deeper level.

Bryan Gernert is CEO of Resonate Networks, an online ad-technology company that targets consumers based on their values.

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