Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Are We Too Deep into Data?

Numbers are only part of the equation when it comes to smart B2B decision-making

David Brooks’ NY Times op-ed piece today got me thinking. Our society’s obsession with gathering huge amounts of data fosters “certain cultural assumptions that everything that can be measured should be measured.” He also notes that data is a “transparent and reliable lens that allows us to filter out emotionalism and ideology.”

Here at HB, we sometimes get labeled as data junkies because we generate a growing portion of our revenue from rigorous benchmarking research and gap analysis studies that we do for our clients. We also try to help online advertisers, agencies and media owners separate the numbers that matter from the numbers that are simply easy to gather—we call those McMetrics. We also urge our clients to supplement all their surveys, polls or other research initiatives with verbatim interviews with respondents. Why? To make sure the human side of the data comes through.

Full disclosure: Our Super Bowl office pools are a little wacky, including one based on the probability that certain categories of commercials will run at specific times of the Big Game. No we didn’t have an over-under on the chances of a second-half blackout. But data showed that a tidal surge of tweets and posts about the bizarre Superdome snafu helped re-kindle interest in an apparent blowout victory for the Baltimore Ravens and brought an estimated 5 to 6 million viewers back to the game.

Beyond the Click

Back in 2002—the dark ages of online media—I co-authored a rigorous research report with
Bay Street Group president, Rick Telberg, entitled “Beyond the Click.” The ideas was to help online advertisers, marketers and agencies better understand the “latency principle” of banner ads. In sum, online consumers don’t necessarily visit your website the instant they see your banner ad and if they do go to your website on the day your new banner ad has run, it’s not necessarily because that particular ad is the most effective one in your campaign, i.e. the one that prompted the consumer to take action. We still get contacted for copies of Beyond the Click and the research also explores the “build effect” of a campaign and the weekend “catch-up” effect of busy professionals.

Brooks admits he’s still trying to figure out when it’s best to rely on intuitive pattern recognition and when we should just ignore intuition and follow the data.  Data, he argues is good at helping us understand when our intuitive view of reality is wrong. Second, he posits that data can “illuminate patterns of behavior we haven’t yet noticed.” For example, does frequent use of such word as “I,” “me,” and “mine” mean you’re more egotistical than people who don’t?  Turns out, when people are feeling confident, they are focused on the task at hand, not on themselves. High status, confident people use fewer “I” words, not more, according to University of Texas prof, James Pennebaker, in his book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns.”

I recently spoke with Eric Wulf, CEO of the International Car Wash Association (ICA), about his organization’s industry benchmarking data initiative which has become one of the ICA’s most popular member benefits.  Wash Count™ is a tool ICA developed to help car wash operators benchmark and compare their business results by market, by geography, by type of facility and many other factors. That’s important to an industry that’s increasingly going from mom-and-pop operators to corporate conglomerates. More than 800 sites contribute data to ICA’s research initiative. But here’s the key, said Wulf: “Our staff spends a lot of time onsite with members, picking up pieces of intelligence and always asking them, ‘How’s it going?’ It’s very important to add the face-to-face interaction to the raw data.

Macro View

Despite yesterday’s report that the economy shrank slightly in the October to December quarter, don’t start sounding the recession alarm bells yet. Housing had another strong month and business investment in equipment and software, rose at an annual rate of 12.4 percent, the best showing in more than a year, the Commerce Department said. Meanwhile, the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) reported that manufacturing grew a lot faster in January thanks to an increase in hiring and new orders. The ISM’s widely watched index is now at 53.1, up from 50.2 in December and its highest level in almost a year.


Data used responsibly is an essential tool for gut checking our assumptions and preventing emotional bias from clouding our decision-making process. But, remember, it is just one tool in a smart B2B marketer’s tool kit. At the end of the day, we’re all humans, trying to get the right products and services into the hands of the right kinds of humans at just the right time when they’re ready to buy.


TAGS: Institute for Supply Management, Super Bowl Blackout, Eric Wulf, International Car Wash Association, David Brooks, New York Times, Rick Telberg, McMetrics, Beyond the Click,
James Pennebaker, University of Texas

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