Isaac Rothstein
Aug 29, 2014

Reasons why the big-data obsession can fail you

If your marketing department becomes too obsessed by data, it is in danger of only ever painting half the picture.

Reasons why the big-data obsession can fail you

“Big data” is the buzz phrase on the lips of every marketer. It's what every marketer champions, yet an obsession with big data is risky. To use a baseball analogy, data alone will not change your 100-loss-season marketing into a World Series winner, but that's exactly the kind of thinking that an obsession with big data generates.

While it is certainly true that data plays a massive role in developing a successful marketing strategy, and one that is precisely designed, it doesn't contribute a single bean to creating motivation, increasing conversions and drawing in that all-important revenue. It's content that creates that emotional bond.

If your marketing department becomes too obsessed by data, it is in danger of only ever painting half the picture. Business heads need to remember that the brands that are the most successful are those that successfully meld the emotional aspects of brand awareness with the analytical side.

There are several different factors that take in both sides of the emotional/analytical connection when it comes to developing a brand that's both intelligence and creative. The key to successful brand awareness comes when marketers do not simply focus on any one given area, and instead manage to successfully combine all the different operational and creative disciplines, and across both the analytical and emotional sides to create the perfect balance.

Both approaches can be broken down into strategic (i.e. the “what” and the “why”) and operational (the “how”) factors in order for marketers to sharpen their strategies.

1. The analytical approach

Analysis is used in order to detect patterns, make projections and measure results to take appropriate action and so come up with the optimal strategy.

Strategic factors: Observation is where customer behavior is analyzed in the hope of gaining new insights. These can be found by using surveys, focus groups, census data mining and newer techniques such as text analysis and digital ethnography.

Operational factors: Automation is where technologies allow marketers to achieve greater levels of speed and precision by using the data that has been gleaned to precisely target offers across multiple channels. Analytics can also be applied to “close the loop” by using their effectiveness to create continuous optimization.

2. The emotional approach

The emotional approach deals with human judgment, intellect, emotion and inspirational moments. Data may play a role, but patterns are discerned through “gut feeling” rather than cold facts.

Strategic factors: Inspiration is where “lightbulb moments” are recorded and harvested to create a strategic advantage. This can be done via crowd-sourcing, natural language processing, gamification and by collaborating. The aim is to tap into the collective human intelligence.

Operational factors: Engagement is what is used to turn brand messages (which on the surface may appear impersonal) into personalized, human-style correspondence. Marketers use engagement via social channels to humanize what otherwise would be seen as a faceless brand.


  • Procter & Gamble is regarded as something of a pioneer in the observation category. It has made extensive use of focus groups and ethnographic techniques in order to attune itself to what customers are saying.
  • IBM is an example of a company that relies on inspiration, allowing opportunities for innovation by using the “wisdom of crowds” approach.
  • Zappos uses automation to tailor individual customer experiences for consumers as they work their way along the purchasing path.
  • REI is an outdoor retailer that combines social activities involving different engagements to create a humanized brand to build customer advocacy and loyalty.

Your company needs to understand where your collective capabilities lie. Where are you most powerful? Where are your advantages? How mature are you in terms of capabilities, culture and organization? Where are your organizational liabilities? Where are you weakest? What strengths do your competitors have? What strengths are they likely to develop?

Your business should create an inventory of your investments, capabilities and initiatives on both the analytical and emotional side, and in terms of strategic and operational factors. This will reveal how intelligent you are as a brand, and will enable you to create your plan for the direction you need to take.

By detailing your capabilities in this way, it will keep your outlook to remain balanced in an area where short-term thinking and instant gratification are dangerous factors. You must protect yourself from the consequences of relying too much upon data. Overusing theoretical models leads to a loss of the acknowledgement of how human factors play a role in marketing, which in turn can lead to an over-familiarity in messaging, or at least a lack of authenticity.

If you rely too much on data, you risk becoming like a baseball player who is so heavily obsessed by stats that he calculates his WAR and VORP (both obscure baseball 'sabermetrics') at the plate, and fails to notice he's been struck out three times. Marketing is just as much about emotion, as it is about the numbers.

Isaac Rothstein is director of Infinite Conversions in Sydney



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