Big Data

Big-Data Faithful and Big-Data Skeptics, Part 1

Jim1Is big data all we need to make successful marketing happen in today’s techno-centric, digitally driven media environment? Or is it all a sham, with the focus on big data distracting us from other more fundamental problems with advertising as part of the marketing exercise? The question comes up a lot in the circles I run in. Yes, we are a boring lot. My writer friends talk about things like Charlie Hebdo. My professor friends talk about education policy. But we ad types talk about this stuff.

What I love about this topic is that it never goes away. And the reason it never goes away is because the issues really do remain unresolved.  By that I mean, neither side — if you can say there is a “side” — has demonstrated the fundamental rightness of its claim to the persuadable members of the opposition.  If the subject were, like, say, gravity or the flatness of the Earth, enough evidence of one kind or another would serve to convince that persuadable constituency of one side that the other side was right.

However, what you’ve got here are a data-faithful with some evidence to support their position, though far from one of absoluteness; and the data-skeptics continue to insist that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.  It’s like theists versus atheists: one believes that what little evidence there is justify transcendental claims of metaphysical import; the other believes that because there isn’t more evidence, what little there is constitute no more than correlative coincidences.

Some might say there IS evidence to support the data-faithful’s claims that the deluge of data being collected DO have positive impact on the advertising decision making process.  Others will say that there isn’t ENOUGH evidence to prove that the AMOUNT of data has meaningful impact.  Because we are still debating this, both positions reveal that these issues remain debatable.

But just what ARE the issues, really?  I’m not sure either camp is sure what they are.  I posit that the issues are bigger than we think they are, and that every time the quant-v-qual debate comes up, we only circle them without articulating them.  The issues are two:

  1. Is data itself meaningful to the advertising proposition, and if so, how so?
  2. Is the Internet actually a viable advertising medium at all?

The second question is the more important one, because its answer will affirm or deny the first one: if online isn’t a truly viable medium, the volume or quality of data won’t really matter.

Are data meaningful?

Sure.  Having data at our disposal to make decisions makes us feel better about making those decisions.  And they almost always help us to make a decision at all, which is better than not making any decisions.  But there is mounting evidence that suggests more data rarely help us make BETTER decisions.  And data of almost any kind doesn’t seem to have any bearing on decisions that improve our quality of life or make the world a better place to live in (the guy who jumps onto the subway tracks to save another man’s life is using very, very little data to decide to do so).

But more specifically, are data meaningful to us in what we do, and if so, how so?

Yes, data are meaningful, but only if taken beyond data itself.  There is often a tendency among the numerate to conflate data with information.  As many of you probably know, data is the plural of ‘datum,’ which is essentially Latin for “something given.” It’s a piece of fact.  A thing in evidence.  But it is just a thing.  Like a rock; or a piece of bloody cloth; or the word “CROATOAN” carved on a tree.  Data are meaningless.  By themselves, data might help you to solve some puzzles: how many people like blue versus red? Do more people click on a black banner with white letters or a white banner with black letters? But it’s information that helps you solve mysteries: will women who live in Wilkes-Barre like coffee that tastes like candy canes? What will be the next Silly Strings craze?  A solved puzzle can tell you what happens; a solved mystery tells you why.  Data need to be converted into information; information does not just naturally flow from them.  Unfortunately, most of the collection and processing that takes place in our industry does little to make the conversion of data to information.  Therefore, all the resources brought to bear might help us solve some marketing puzzles; they do almost nothing to help us solve marketing mysteries. This has made advertising more efficient; but it’s done little to make it actually “better.”

The second question, is online even a viable advertising medium, is the one that we should finally get to.  After all of these years of trying to “improve” it, we haven’t really done so.  At what point are we going to admit that what we may be trying to do is make something work the way we want it to that isn’t supposed to work the way we want it to.  No matter how good we get at sewing wings on pigs, those pigs still aren’t going to fly.

I’ve suggested it for years; online “advertising” is good for products or services that rely on some level of rational decision-making, or for which the medium also serves as the channel of distribution. But for most brands “advertising” qua advertising is not something that can be successfully accomplished online. Advertising is interruptive, always has been; modern digital environments are about engagement, conversation and “stories.”  Online is a better place for this than it is for the interruptive activity known as advertising.  It’s better suited to what I’ve called “flow experience marketing,” an idea I’ve heard touted by a few other marketing service providers.  It seems online is much better suited to marketing activities than advertising ones.  It is a means to collect data, listen to conversations, participate in those conversations, practice CRM, and all around be a part of your audience’s life in a non-interruptive way, as a source for information or a part of their virtual community.

Next week? What’s best about the data.

Jim Meskauskas is a co-founder and Chief Strategic Officer of Media Darwin, a consultancy specializing in strategic planning of commercial communicative action. He’s a medialogist who has spent the last 20 years living, breathing and thinking about how to use media to move people to action. Outside of that, his likes are horror movies, Southeast Asian cuisine, his wife and his cat — not necessarily in that order. His dislikes are mean people, people who text while walking in or out of the subway entrances, pestilence, war, famine and death.