There has never been a time when it’s been easier to get information. If you don’t believe me, pick up that computer you keep by your side most of the time (that would be your smartphone), push whichever button activates either Siri, Google Assistant, or whatever flavor of virtual assistant you have installed, and ask what the weather will be tomorrow. Ask who the Prime Minister of Denmark is or a few ways you can cook a turnip. We have the world at our fingertips.
That can be true with business information too. Traffic to your media properties, interactions with your content, results of your ad and social media campaigns, and feedback on how your company or brand is interacting with the world at large are all readily available for analysis and action. So is customer data, market predictions, and just about anything else you’d need to know. Pretty awesome, right?
The problem is that not everyone wants to know the truth about these things. Take the manager whose staff is leaving in droves. They “hear” it’s because of a better offer but they don’t take the time to sit down and dig into if there is an underlying problem in their operation. They couldn’t handle it if the problem was really them and their management style so they avoid the question.
Then there is the web person who is under pressure to keep growing traffic and doesn’t bother to exclude the kinds of traffic that inflate the numbers. You know: your own internal use of your website, traffic from places where you don’t do business, referrer spam or other obviously fake traffic. They know the truth but their bosses can’t handle it.
The problem with having information is that it compels you to act. We can always deny there is a problem if we don’t know about it or if we think the information we have is inaccurate. As with the law, ignorance is no excuse in my mind. I’ve been in meetings where some excellent forecasting predicts a downturn in a company’s business but several members of the management team want to expand their spending. The forecasts are subordinated to the feeling that more spending will yield more revenue despite the fact that the company’s share of the market has been steady for years and probably won’t increase in a downturn (which is basically what the managers are predicting). They couldn’t handle the truth: they need to tighten their belts and ride out the next few quarters. They’re no longer in business, by the way.
We hear an awful lot about fake news and there certainly is some out there to be ignored. Your business analytics don’t fall into that category and you ignore them at your own peril. If you can’t handle the truth, you can assume that reality will handle you one way or another. OK?
I think everyone knows that a lot of data is collected as we conduct our daily digital activities. Google and the other search engines know what we’re looking for, Amazon and other commerce sites know what we’re shopping for, Facebook knows what we like, LinkedIn knows who we know, etc., etc., etc. These data footprints are collected and in many cases sold to marketers and their agents to allow them to serve ads to you. If any of that comes as a shock to you, I’m not sure where you’ve been for the last decade or more.
What you might not have thought about, however, is that the ads themselves collect data. How many times has someone seen it? What kind of person (that pesky data that the aforementioned guys have) has responded to an ad, and how well do the ads translate to sales (lovingly called the conversion rate as if someone is changing religions…). As it turns out, there is a bit of a controversy about who actually owns that data: the advertiser or the agency. The marketers believe that they are the rightful owners while the agency folks believe just as strongly that they are. Neither side feels that the publishers who serve the ads and, therefore make data collection possible, have much of a claim to it. Of course, even publishers came out ahead of one other group as the rightful owners in the survey: consumers.
As you can see in the chart, only 10% of advertisers and 15% of agency respondents believed that consumers had a claim to their own information. That’s tragic. Why? Because it represents a mindset that is ultimately self-defeating. It can lead to legal problems at worst and consumers opting out (if they can figure out how) at best. What have the advertiser or the agency done to give the consumer value for the data? Nothing, in my mind. One could argue that the ads they serve make possible the content the consumer enjoys, but those very ads make that enjoyment nearly impossible given the state of ad-serving today, particular in mobile.
Unless and until we on the marketing side see the consumer as at least an equal partner in our business and not as a bunch of rubes or just as “data”, the problems with ad blocking, anti-spam rules, and other protective measures aren’t going to go away. What will go away are the people represented by the very data over which the agencies and marketers are fighting. You agree?
I was discussing some numbers with someone the other day. It was clear from the conversation that she was taking every bit of data as gospel. I tried to explain a few important things to keep in mind when working with data and as I thought about it perhaps my thinking could be helpful to some of you out there in screed-land.
We all want as much certainty in our business lives as we can get. Part of that is wanting all of our numbers to be facts. They’re not. You may be familiar with the term “sampling error.” Basically, it means that the data is off because the sample from which the data is drawn is not representative of whatever it is you’re trying to measure. While you might think that, for example, your analytics measure everyone, they don’t. Most of the data we read uses some sampling. Sometimes it’s a timing issue – financial data, in particular, can be skewed based on where we might be in a business calendar or where those who pay us are in theirs.
The point is that there are error rates involved with many of these “facts” because these facts are really just estimates. TV ratings, for example, are probably the most widely known estimates and multi-billion dollar businesses involving networks, agencies, and marketers revolve around numbers everyone knows are not particularly accurate. There are error rates.
Here is the advice I give people. Figure out what questions you’re trying to answer and then find as many different sources of data as you can. If possible, see if you can get multiple people to interpret those data sets. In theory, they should all come up with the same answers. It’s critically important that you NOT tell them what position you’re trying to support (can you find me some information that says we should do XYZ). That is a recipe for disaster because it encourages people only to look at data or interpretations of data that supports what you or they already think is true. That is turning “facts”, which are already often on shaky ground, into a larger fiction, and that’s not what we’re after, is it?
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 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!
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?
Ever encounter a situation where things seem backwards? Maybe you’ve seen a parent being told what to do by a child or a customer being berated by a service rep. It makes you wonder who is in charge or who is working for whom. I have another thought along those lines today, and it has to do with data. There was a post from AdAge by their data reporter, Katie Kaye who wrote the following about the NY Times piece on Amazon:
The article should inspire us to question the value of decisions based entirely on data to create business efficiencies at the expense of human empathy and the arguable imperfections that can benefit any organization or project.
I like that. It makes you ask who is in charge here: the humans or the numbers. We all ingest more data than we can consume, and, unfortunately, some of us allow that massive intake to be regurgitated as unconsidered decisions. That’s a bad idea. The data is there to serve us, not the other way around.
I’m the first to say that we need lots of data. Without impartial feedback, we’re flying blind, and data can help us make better decisions. The key there is “help US”. Data without the context of a plan is useless. Data that’s not actionable is useless. Data that causes us to overreact, however, is dangerous. If you watched any election coverage last night, you probably heard a lot about early results and the need to wait for data from key precincts. How many times has someone in your organization overreacted to an early piece of data, only to find out that it was not at all typical of the overall results? We need a plan, we need context, and we need a little patience.
When we chase after outliers, we’re working for the data. That’s backward. Data, and all the other technological tools in our arsenals, needs to work for us. Make sense?
Yesterday I wrote about using data as a flashlight. There is, of course, a problem inherent in flashlights that is also true about data. If you look at a flashlight the wrong way, you become temporarily blinded. Let someone shine one into your eyes in a dark room and you’ll understand. Data can be blinding too.
For example, it’s great to have big ears and to listen carefully to what is transpiring with respect to your company or brand in the social sphere. The problem is that we all know those with the loudest mouths tend to be the least satisfied. Some are just chronic complainers; others are trying to get something for nothing. Taking their buzz as gospel can drive you insane as well as point you in the wrong direction. Obviously they can’t be ignored, but that’s a beam of light we need to be sure is aiming in the right direction.
Ratings and reviews are other sources of excellent information, but be sure that as you’re researching (both those of your own brand and those of your competitors) that you’re not falling prey to fake information. There are companies that hire scammers to write them, as this piece explains in detail. Place what’s out there publicly in the context of your own customer service data and support emails. Are there large differences? Complaints that are never made privately but seem to be a steady drumbeat publicly?
I like this quote:
The paradigm has historically been to do some qualitative studies to develop hypotheses for testing, then validate and measure through quantitative studies. The only difference now is that, in addition to intimate panel-based research, we also have the ability to get much more input from a panel of millions.
So as you’re using those million beams of light, don’t forget context and source. Make your data set as comprehensive as possible before drawing conclusions. Failing to do so means blindness rather than illumination.