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Lies, Damn Lies, And Statistics

The world of marketing is fraught with data, we’re drowning in it, awash in a sea of numbers, statistics, charts, graphs, analytic dashboards keeping track of minutia that has little bearing on the bigger picture of framing and positioning the thing we’re marketing in it’s best possible light to the best possible audience. What was once about words, pictures, images, headlines, ideas, insights and engagement has been reduced to a series of tactical, digital zig zags, trying to maximize return on a micro level, and hope it scales up and moves the corporate revenue needle.


Do It Yourself

One of the reasons that data has become so powerful (it always was, we just didn’t think it was cool to talk about it) is that not only is there a lot of it, but it’s easier to obtain and derive, and the costs are much lower, thanks to the Internet. In the bad old days, if you wanted to measure engagement or response, you had sales numbers (conversion), inbound phone call numbers (inquiry, “likes”), or account rep activity (lead gen inbound). Other than those in-house numbers, if you wanted to know more, you needed to dig much deeper, create a research study, engage a firm and have them do what they do and report back.

Today, all the activity data, engagement activity, views, likes, dwell time, clicks, shares, conversions, and other forms of engagement signal are logged, categorized, organized and reported to you digitally on a minute-by-minute basis in real time, using inexpensive or free software. And it can all be accessed by anyone with a laptop and an Internet connection, anywhere in the world.

Prove It . . .

One other reason all this craziness over data is occurring is more corporate and has to do with economics. The marketing department has long been viewed as an expense, occasionally by the more enlightened as an investment, but only recently as having the potential to be a profit center. Marketers have always had the need to justify their existence pressed upon them, and we spend hours writing reports, dissecting response numbers and finding ways to make it look like the things we’re doing contribute directly to the company’s revenue and well-being. On some level, the more data we can present, the more attractive a case we can make for being provided, and spending, more money to do the things we know we need to do, but have to prove it to everyone else.

In the real world, using data to gauge performance, learning and improving returns, and making decisions based on data is really the main idea – but we’ve been doing that for years. The real trick is to properly select and vet the data you’re looking at and using to make those decisions. Just because a number represents a count of a certain behavior or response doesn’t make it a viable or useful piece of data – it may not scale, it may not apply across platforms or audiences, it may not be sustainable, it may be badly skewed by events you have no control over. But it is data, and therefore useful, right?

The other pitfall to all this data is that even if it is accurate, correct, vetted and sustainable, you need to find a way to convert that data to insight, and that insight into an action plan. You have to use the data to further the cause. Most data will tell you something on it’s own, but its not enough to go the distance. You need to step back, see the larger picture, put the data in context with other inputs you have proven already, and see if it flies.

Lies, Lies, All Lies!

Now we come to the lies part. Numbers and statistics can be manipulated to indicate almost any point of view, the insight comes in the interpretation. Averages tend to dilute or blunt insight, rather than amplify it. Statisticians have all sorts of tricks and formulas to manipulate data so that it can tell virtually any story you want – it’s all in the spin, how it’s presented. Even something as simple as college rankings, a long standing measure of the potential for success in leveraging education and brand to elevate one’s position in life in the long term, can be easily manipulated by marketers to tell a story that promotes the cause. If a college has slipped in the rankings from number three to number seven, is that slide an anomaly, is it due to something short term or environment that will reverse it self when conditions change? Even though that could be seen to represent a significant slide, it’s a virtual certainty that recruiters will be touting it as a “Top 10” college for years to come following the slide, hoping that nobody looks too closely at where within that top ten it falls.

Use It Right

The best use of all this data is to gain a clear understanding of the current position and level of success of your marketing efforts, establish a base line, relate it to growth, profitability, revenue growth, reach, market share or other commonly regarded metric, in order to use that baseline as a starting point for improvement going forward. If that happens, justification of added spending will be easily achieved, as activity can now be tied directly to results that impact everyone. Clicks and likes don’t pay the light bill or match the retirement funds, but if you can use data to show how you’re moving the needle, use it to improve performance by looking at the “right” metric, and make good decisions based on a few key data points, then that’s all the data you really need . . .

About David Poulos

Speaker, Consultant and Author David Poulos is known as the Marketing Doctor because of his proven ability to accurately diagnose and prescribe the most effective solutions for successful business growth with absolute surgical precision.

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