Data Do Not Think; People Do

Database management is a hot topic today. Numbers can generate numbness. Marketing executives often expect data analytics to reveal the answers. The role of data, evidence, research, is to inform, not to decide. Research provides direction, and raises questions. Data does not decide; people do. Data do not take into consideration mission, context, policies, priorities; people do. Data do not think; people do.

Research can be seen as an evil villain stifling creativity, dominating our ability to make creative judgments. On the other hand, data can inform decision-making in an uncertain, volatile world. Data have a role to play in marketing: in brand design, in package design, in store design, in industrial design, in product design, in service design, in experience design, in communications design.

Unfortunately, as business has become more demanding, business has become more defensive. In a world where budgets are being squeezed by limited resources, managers and marketers lean towards an over-reliance on the mystical muscle of measurement to take over the role of marketing expertise and experience. While there is much that we can measure, there is also much that is not measurable.

There are hundreds of research firms and data management firms that provide tools and metrics and processes for data collection and for data analysis. There are hundreds of quantitative tools and techniques that claim to provide creative ways to figure out what people really think and feel about everything and anything. There are a whole host of qualitative approaches such as anthropology, ethnography, group interviews, individual interviews, projective techniques, eye movements, brain wave tracking, facial expression, hypnosis, shadowing, at the disposal of market researchers. In addition, every time you hit a buy button, or check out an ad, you create your own unique data stream that is collected, analyzed, and augmented.

There is a graveyard of large-scale, multiple country research projects using qualitative and quantitative techniques only to find that unveiled a recitation of results and a huge report without drawing a single, insightful, newsworthy actionable recommendation. When the report just reports, without providing truly creative, insightful interpretation business action is stymied.

Data should be a learning tool, not a rationalization tool. We cannot allow ourselves to be mystified by the math of metrics. The surface beauty of the nature of analytics and of attractive wondrous new qualitative approaches is enticing. The more mystical the methodology, the more hopeful we are. We don’t have to think. The research will do the thinking for us and tell us what to do. Of course, no one intentionally commits valuable resources to something that is likely to fail. If the decision turns out to be wrong, it is the fault of the research. “I made the wrong decision… the research made me do it!” This is not the reason. It is just an excuse. Worse yet, when we discover that we are unable to measure what is important, we make important what we can measure.

Data can provide direction for decision-making. Data informs decisions. Data does not think. People do. We should not let the data become the decision-maker. We should not allow mystical measurement processes and metrics mesmerize management. Secret, proprietary techniques should not rule the decision-making world. We should not defer decisions to black lock-boxes full of mystery. We should not make clear decisions based on unclear tools and techniques. We must not allow process to dictate over passion. We must not sacrifice accountability on the altar of measurement.

Disciplined research is an important contributor to effective business management. However, there are too many marketers who believe that superior analytics will make superior decisions. Analytics provide helpful input into decision-making. They do not make the decisions. People do.

MBA has come to mean, “Manage by analytics.” Marketing leaders must be more than reporters of the results of data analysis. We are evolving into a generation of marketers who live in an antiseptic, analytic world. Superior analysis provides understanding of where we are and how we got there. It provides helpful information about how to defend the status quo. As long as the world stays the same, it can provide predictions based on current trends. But, the world is not likely to stay the same. Research alone does not provide insight into what kind of future we can and should create for our brands.

In this increasingly competitive, sometimes frustrating marketing world, there is a pervasive fear of taking the leap of faith based on informed judgment. Informed judgment is not guesswork.

Marketers must use their expertise and their judgment and their creativity to make reasoned, informed, and insightful decisions.

In other words, measurement should be an input into a marketing learning system… always looking for insight-based opportunities to improve our ideas.

Linear thinking analysis is ineffective because customer behavior is not linear. Analysis is defined as the detailed examination of the elements or structure of something, typically as a basis for discussion or interpretation. It is the separation of a substance into its constituent elements.

Superior analysis can tell us what is happening. Synthesis is different. Synthesis is defined as the combination of components or elements to form a connected whole. Creative synthesis is about putting together familiar elements in unfamiliar ways. Creative synthesis is the road to true, actionable creative insight. Synthesizers draw together information from multiple fields and use that to create an understanding of why people do what they do and why people feel what they feel. They see creative patterns where others see disconnected fragments of information. They see a future that others fail to see.

Effective marketing requires marketing discipline. The problem is we often seem to believe truths will appear out of process over passion, a magical result of research techniques. Some marketers believe that if we follow a disciplined step-wise process supported by special tools and analytics, a decision will be revealed. . This is nonsense. Hiding behind process and metrics is a safe way to manage. It is way to avoid responsibility. People make decisions; processes do not. Managers make choices; metrics do not.