Tag Archives: Data mining

Snowing Our Ignorance

It’s snowing here in Central North Carolina. Again. Is that unusual? Well, the area usually gets less than 6 inches of snow a year and we’re about to get 4 or so. We also got a few inches several weeks ago. When we got a dusting (and to my Yankee friends I know that 6 inches are pretty much just a dusting) of snow last year – maybe half an inch – the area came to a complete halt and schools were shut for 4 days. You can imagine what 4 inches will do. Fortunately, by the weekend it will be near 70 degrees so the accumulation shouldn’t be around very long.

Photo by Catherine Zaidova

Other than venting about the golf courses being covered in white, why do I bring this up? Because it’s symptomatic of something which has business implications. Increased snowfall, extreme temperature changes, and other weather phenomena are indicative of something going on. It’s pretty clear that something has changed and yet there are those who turn a scientific and factual issue into a political one. Folks, you can call it climate change or you can call it Fred but no matter what you call it, it is real.

You know, of course, that we don’t do politics here on the screed and my point isn’t that we need to acknowledge that the weird weather everywhere is the result of climate change. The point is that any businessperson can give their own interpretation about what they see going on in the market and in their own enterprise. The problem is that sometimes their interpretation conflicts with the empirical evidence – the facts. A single data point isn’t a reason to change your entire strategy, but when you have enough data points to produce a reliable trend, attention must be paid.

There are some very famous studies that were conducted by Stanford in 1975. They showed how people’s opinions are often unmoved by facts. One need not go a heck of a lot further than your own Facebook feed to see one person trying to change another’s mind using some fact-based evidence and failing miserably. The cold weather and snow here remind me that you can deny the facts but that denial won’t keep the snow from falling. Question the sources of information, question the interpretation of information, but once those questions are answered, don’t deny the facts. You still will have to shovel up the aftermath regardless. Make sense?

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Filed under Reality checks, Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

The Pony

You’ve probably heard the old joke about the kid and the pile of horse manure.  There are many variants, but the basic story is that a kid is digging through a huge pile of horse manure.  When he is asked why his response is “with this much manure, there has to be a pony in here somewhere.”  It’s a story a use to help clients understand the nature of data.  Any of us who are in business see more and more of it each day.  In fact, we’re probably setting up systems to provide more of it to us as well.  The unfortunate truth is that most of it is…well…manure.

a Shetland Pony. Français : Un poné (Shetland).

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’re after the pony, or at least we should be.  The pony is the actionable insights that are contained within the data and not the accumulation of data itself,  It does take a lot of digging, and that digging can begin only after we set up systems to gather and to organize the flood of data.  Knowing that website traffic grew as measured by session count tells you very little.  Understanding how it grew or if that growth was because a bunch of referrer spammers hit it gives you actionable information (update the spam filters!). Knowing that your store sales were up 5% without understanding that you’ve lost market share can cause you to think that you’re doing well when in fact you’re losing ground.

Say “so what” to yourself a lot.  If you can’t explain why a piece of data is meaningful, you need to discard it because it’s the manure surrounding the pony inside.  If you can’t put something into a broader context, push to do so. If you can’t determine a course of action based on a particular nugget of information, ignore it and keep digging until you get to the pony.  Make sense?

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Filed under Consulting

You Need Scouts

I don’t think there has been a baseball movie made that didn’t feature some weathered old guy seated in the bleachers somewhere.  He usually utters undecipherable baseball jargon while taking copious notes.  This, dear reader, is the baseball scout, who used to be how talent was discovered.  If you’ve seen or read Moneyball, you know that the scout is an endangered species.  This article from USA Today last week talks about how many pro scouts are still unemployed one month before the start of spring training.  The reason?  Data.

Photo by Justin Lafferty 00:19, 7 December 200...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Baseball is in the throes of the Moneyball movement.  Teams have been laying off scouts and turning to sabermetrics, which Wikipedia defines as the empirical analysis of baseball, especially baseball statistics that measure in-game activity.  Baseball has fallen in love with data.  Maybe your business has too.

Here is the problem, both for you and for baseball.  There are certain things that don’t show up in data.  A player’s leadership qualities in the dugout aren’t quantifiable.  Potential can often be visible but not measurable.  That’s true in your office as well.  The data may show you what it happening but it’s hard for it to show you what could be happening.  That requires humans: scouts.

We all need scouts.  We need people who use the data as a tool but who also have the experience and wisdom to know when the data is missing something.  That doesn’t mean projecting one’s wishes into the numbers nor distorting the story those numbers tell.  It is, however, an acknowledgment that there is often a bigger picture than what’s inside the frame.

Here is a quote from a scout:

I’ve got 23 years in the business,’’ Wren said, “and now clubs don’t want that experience? I look at teams now, and they’re hiring guys who aren’t really scouts. They’re sabermetric guys from the office, and they put them in the field like they’re scouts, just to give them a consensus of opinion.

That’s dangerous for a baseball team.  It could be fatal for you.  You’re up!

 

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?, sports business

Why Your Marketing Job Is Safe

A lot of folks who thought they were in marketing are finding out that they’re really computer scientists. That’s a shame in my book. Surprised I’d say that after all of the rants in this space about the need to measure actionable data? Let me explain what I mean and how I think there will always be a place for real marketers.

English: A business ideally is continually see...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Computers and the data they can generate are really good at many things. I, for one, am very much looking forward to the day when they are driving all of our cars. One thing at which computers suck is creativity. They provide great creative tools like Photoshop, but the ability to create is intrinsically human, in my book. They aren’t great at improvising. They can’t “pretend.” I’ve not heard of them mashing up a couple of concepts into a third. Yet those tasks are the essence of great marketing.

We are complex creatures. There are things within the human mind and character that no computer can understand. They might get the “what” (actions you took) but most of us in marketing are interested in the “why” at least as much. It’s great that, as recent research found, 92.3% of respondents said they maintain databases to host information on customers or prospects, at least to some extent. I wonder if that data dependency is replacing the human side of marketing.

I like this quote from a recent article by someone at Adobe:

Buyers’ behavior isn’t always rational. People make strange decisions that defy neat algorithmic understanding. Often, customers are not simply looking for the highest-quality product for the lowest possible price. Indeed, the burgeoning field of behavioral economics is revealing on an almost daily basis how irrational consumers can be—and how seemingly irrelevant factors can influence purchasing decisions. Savvy marketing adapts to these nuances.

Exactly.  Computers don’t do irrational. We do need to use data as a tool, but we can’t assume that our jobs are done because we’ve got a system that aggregates and reports.  We can’t dive so deeply into data that we drown in it.  Computers can’t do marketing well because they lack the skills that make great marketing: intuition, creativity, innovation, compassion, and imagination.  You might think your marketing job has morphed into that of a computer scientist, and if it has, you have a problem.  Great marketers know how to use those tools within the context of the human to human interactions that make business flow. Do you?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?

A Snap Of A Dilemma

Are you on Snapchat? I am, although I don’t pretend to understand it as well as some of my younger friends. What I do understand about it, however, is that they are facing the sort of dilemma that torments a lot of businesses. I don’t have any real answers today but maybe you do. Let’s see. 

Snapchat began as a way for users to send disappearing content – photos, videos – to other users. Of course, as with everything on the internet, the content never really disappears (screengrabs, anyone?), but let’s put that aside. The app became very successful and now has over 100 million daily active users. That’s the sort of scale that becomes incredibly appealing to marketers, and it also makes other revenue options such as commerce and data mining more viable.

Now the dilemma. Snapchat’s business has been built to a great extent on the premise of privacy. If you’ve ever tried to locate someone on the platform, good luck. If you don’t have the email address they’re using or their exact Snapchat name, it’s very hard. That may be great if you’re a user trying to avoid stalkers, but if you’re a brand trying to get users it means you need to do a lot of external marketing of your Snapchat presence.  This quote from a recent Digiday piece says it nicely:

One of Snapchat’s main selling points with users entails its combination of anonymous users and disappearing messages. The company has been strident about not building profiles on users to creepily advertise to them. As the reality sinks in about the need for a viable business, more targeting and data capabilities follow. Technology partners are able to bring their own data to an API — email lists and other customer information — to serve ads against.

Therein lies the dilemma.  Until now, Snapchat has tried to make money by selling “lenses”, overlays that will let you alter your snaps so that, say, you can be vomiting rainbows (and who doesn’t want to do that!).  While $300,000 a month in lens sales is nothing to sneeze at, it’s not nearly the kind of monetization that a platform with this kind of user base can command. They also tried to sell ads embedded in some of the “stories” that are a part of the service (they’re a series of snaps linked together around a theme).  Apparently they don’t have enough user data or metrics about engagement to satisfy big spending.  So what do they do?  What is the business?

The balance between staying true to the reasons customers engaged with you in the first place and making money is tricky.  Better metrics and targeting might mean less privacy.  More ads in content mean less user enjoyment (no one likes being interrupted). Less enjoyment and decreased privacy might mean a decline in the user base.  But it is a business, and investors want to see a return.

So what’s the answer?

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Filed under digital media, Thinking Aloud

It’s Not Just Data

There is an interesting case that was argued before the Supreme Court the other day and it just might have an impact on your business.  There was also a lawsuit filed in an unrelated matter that could have the same effect.  A third item is a study that’s kind of scary. Let’s have a quick look at them and think about what they might mean to anyone who gathers information about their customers. 

First, the case before The Supremes.  It involves Spokeo, one of the large data aggregators.  Spokeo’s information about a consumer was almost 100% wrong.  As Justice Kagan said, “They basically got everything wrong about him. They got his marital status wrong. They got his income wrong. They got his education wrong. They basically portrayed a different person.”  The plaintiff was seeking a job when he filed suit, and worried that the errors in the report would affect his job search.  The other suit involves Ashley Madison.  They were sued for allegedly misleading users by inflating the number of women who belonged to the service.  As we have found out from the data hack, only a small percentage of the profiles belonged to actual women who used the site.  The company hired employees whose jobs were to create thousands of fake female profiles.

I suspect that a third form of data abuse will be in the courts shortly, as a recent study found that the average Android app sends potentially sensitive data to 3.1 third-party domains, and the average iOS app connects to 2.6 third-party domains.  None of the apps notify users that their information is being shared with third parties.  Data that’s wrong, data that’s fake, and data that’s shared without permission.  I suppose if we could get the fake guys to populate the wrong guys, sharing it without permission wouldn’t be a big deal.  Since it’s your personal information, it is.

If you gather data (and who doesn’t), you have a responsibility to keep it secure and not to use it for purposes beyond what the owner of the data (that would be you and me) reasonably expects you’ll be doing with it.  If you’re disseminating data, especially data that could impact someone’s life and not just your own business, you need to be sure it’s accurate.  And if you’re making stuff up, please just go away.

They’re not just data points, folks.  They’re people.  Maybe they’re lawsuits in waiting, or maybe they’re your spouse, kids, or parents.  Let’s be careful out there, ok?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?

Coleridge And Your Data

Someone probably made you read Samuel Coleridge‘s Rime Of The Ancient Mariner along your educational way. It contains a couplet that got me thinking about data:

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

We spend so much time collecting and attempting to analyze data and yet it seems difficult to “drink” from the overwhelming amount we have.  I wonder if we keep an eye on the reasons why we gather data in the first place.  In my mind, there are  two main reasons to collect data:

    • To form actionable business questions
    • To measure how where we are today is different from where we were yesterday

Let me take a second to discuss them.  When we gather information from a customer or potential customer, we should always have a reason for doing so.  Otherwise we’re just filling up our data storage with bits we’ve got no need to store.  A recent IDG Connect study found that the biggest hurdles facing companies in terms of data were poor data quality and excessive data, so we need to think before we gather.  Some of the information they will give you (name, email, maybe a physical address); other information you’ll take yourself (usage patterns on the web and/or mobile, information our of social profiles, etc).

We ought to be using some of that data to educate our fans about our brand and industry.  That falls under the “actionable” category.  What results do we want from them?  How can we tell if we’re moving the needle?  One big day of traffic might be an aberration but trends tend not to lie over time.  I like this quote from the report:

The true value of Big Data is in the ability to leverage it for development of an informed strategy. Organizations need to move beyond a focus on just managing data to extracting trends and insights that will drive business outcomes.

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information you have, you probably have too much.  It’s probably not properly focused.  We need to collect as little data as possible – it’s much easier to drink a glass of water than an ocean.  It should be just enough to generate insight and not enough to foster confusion.  Which are you doing?

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints