big data vs gut feeling

Today’s Marketing Combines Big Data With Sound Intuition

Gee RanasinhaMarketing

Some of the greatest marketing minds relied more on their intuition than what, today, would be called Big Data.

Steve Jobs was famously noted for ignoring market research when developing Apple products. In an interview with Business Week in 1997 he was famously quoted as saying “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Many marketers and business owners today model the way they market their business on the actions of people like Steve Jobs. However, if you base your marketing decisions purely on intuition today, you are going to fail. Just as it often failed for Steve Jobs and a zillion others.

Big Data Brings IT Functions Into Marketing

Big Data has become a bit of an industry buzzword, and not just within the marketing industries. The current revolution in marketing metrics analyses is only just beginning – it’s forecast that by 2018 marketing will be spending more on technology than IT departments.

So why do most marketing people prefer to think of themselves as the next Steve Jobs? Because it’s sexy. They think that going with their gut feeling is more in-tune with how customers think and behave, and makes them heros in the eyes of their peers.

But the future of marketing isn’t basing your decisions solely on intuition. But then, neither is purely going by the numbers. The challenge, moving forward, is successfully integrating the two.

Intuition Without Data Only Gets You So Far

There’s much to be said for basing decisions on what you feel is right. There are plenty of studies that show that city traders can often outperform general trends by investing in stocks and bonds by gut feeling, rather than data. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio of the University of Southern California conducted a study showing that there’s much to be said with basing decisions on emotion. Furthermore, many marketing professionals – myself included – believe that customers initially buy from an emotional position, before rationalizing their purchase. They let their heart rule their head.

However, there’s also plenty of instances where relying solely on intuition can trip us up. Casinos are a prime example – in the end, the house always wins.

The problem with making decisions based on our gut feelings is not just that they’re often wrong, but that we place more confidence in them than we should. Our intuition feels so much more real than looking at numbers and charts, so we’re more comfortable when we act upon it. Making a decision based on intuition is putting our belief in the power of our own, unique personal experiences – and that makes us feel good.

Letting yourself be led by emotion can distort what’s really happening. Just because you were bitten by a dog when you were a kid, doesn’t mean that your neighbor’s Great Dane is waiting for the earliest opportunity to rip your leg off. Intuition can be invaluable when events are experienced in realtime, and we have the opportunity to react and influence results. But when the experience is unique, indirect, or infrequent, going with one’s gut is pretty much doomed to failure.

That’s when data not only becomes useful, but essential.

It’s Data, Jim. But Not As We Know It

Data has always been around. The change today lies in its relevance. In the old days our decisions were based on historical information – a customer survey conducted last month, or channel sales figures from the previous quarter. Today, data can be collected in realtime. Systems and processes slice-and-dice it with regularity, efficiency and accuracy.

Moreover, the underlying technology can pre-interpret that data. Patterns and trends can be extracted, and ‘what-if’ projection models can be constructed. External influences and factors can be integrated into the mix, and their influence on the results can be determined instantly. However, even with all of this tech, the validity of such results still hinges on selecting the right sample sets and measurement parameters. Finally, a subjective (emotional?) prognosis may need to be overlaid before the results can be deemed accurate and relevant.

All of which gives us a best guess to the direction where marketing is heading.

The Future Of Marketing Is (Still) About People

Steve Jobs is widely regarded today as being a genius of his time. Not only did he not have terabytes of data to help him make decisions, he didn’t want any of it.

But at the same time he had more than his share of failures. Clearly he would have been better off if he could have used realtime data to (at least) help influence the direction of his ideas before going to market. The data we’re talking about – and its presentation – is very different from even a few years ago.

What’s most exciting about Big Data is less about the numbers themselves: it’s that it’s putting people at the center of it all, where they should be. We’ve always had data, even if the reach and age of the data meant it had less relevance. Realtime tools and systems give us the insight, but it’s the combination of both objective and subjective data that brings results.

Going by the numbers doesn’t remove the need for marketing intuition. But it does allow us to better separate fact from fiction.