The other day I was chatting to a Digital Grand Fromage (they exist now) in one of the big four ad networks who told me that one problem with today's brand marketers (aka clients) is they don’t like data. Huh? Don’t like data? How can this be I thought? The marketing industry is utterly obsessed with the stuff; be it GRPs, TRPs, OTS, RPC or the myriad of consumer segmentation schemes, such as TGI. Or the insights garnered from quantitative or qualitative market research about, for instance, awareness and recall. Surely, the marketing business is awash with metrics and measurement. In fact, I think what this highly-esteemed DGF was talking about was a fear of the type of data produced on the web, by machines, apps, devices and other web wizadry. Not ‘proper’ media and marketing information like BARB. At a superficial level this fear of online data is the understandable anxiety felt by brand marketers who, when trying to invest their media megabucks, are interrupted by someone suggesting the use of a webby analytics package. A kind of ‘dashboard-itis'. Such dashboards promise to offer huge amounts of business-critical, C-Suite-level insights into ROI delivery. In reality, they make people want to rush into a dark room and apply wet flannelling to their throbbing brows. Indeed, ongoing exposure to...
However, the fear goes beyond presentational matters. Today’s networked media environment is chucking out data about consumers that goes right to the heart of many of the assumptions that have driven the marketing industry in the past.
Out Of The Lab
Previously, a lot of marketing data has in fact been a theoretical version of the world that allows brand executives to test their ideas and assumptions. Which means that like a scientist in a pristine, controlled laboratory, not only can almost nothing go (badly) wrong, but the nature of the experiments can be designed within parameters that are brand-friendly.
However, the digital data being collected today about consumers (aka people) is of a different type altogether. In the brand laboratories it was normal, and encouraged, to ask consumers what they wanted, because they were seen as rational individuals who could be popped into an appropriate segment and then analysed over time. In networked media, the data being gathered about people is recording what they are actually doing. Be it browsing, buying, watching, commenting, choosing, liking as well as who they know and, increasingly, where they are.
And what is now becoming evident is that comparing the laboratory findings with the digital bits and bytes is like comparing zebras and camels. They’ve both got four legs and like eating grass but the similarities end there. And it's a stark distinction that is being recognised in a wide range of different places, as the amount of this 'new' data grows.
Word Is Spreading
At James Governor’s most splendid MonkiGras bashola earlier this year (imagine being in GitHub where the entry-level IQ is about 152) Matt LeMay from bit.ly, the URL shortner, brilliantly explained the gulf between the links that people publish themselves, that are mostly erudite, witty and eloquent, and those they actually click on, that are mainly gossipy, fun and frivolous. Memorably, LeMay described this as kitteh vs chickin; the tension between our egos that want to be seen as adorable and gorgeous and our earthy desires to be entertained and tittilated. This apparently innocent gap is, in fact, the yawning precipice upon which brand marketeers now teeter.
However, it’s not just Silicon Valley types who have noticed such discrepancies. Monkchips also points to a paper from the Bank of England, no less, that notes how the type of data available online is, ‘collected as a by-product of normal activity, rather than requiring individuals or firms to respond to survey questions after the event’. The BofE then explains the benefits of this stating that, ‘this can avoid problems associated with non-response or inaccurate responses. And it also means that information is continually collected on a wider range of issues, rather than just on a few pre-determined questions. As a result, search data can help analyse issues that arise unexpectedly.’
Elsewhere, one of Coke’s top marketing executives, the splendid Jonathan Mildenhall, in a video describing the direction in which the giant brand’s marketing must head, doesn’t pull his punches about 'right' and 'wrong' data. Talking about current research techniques he states that, ‘qualitiative testing is an increasingly outmoded and irrelevant tool’, and with regard to TV commercials, adds that, ‘we must avoid qualitative testing of scripts altogether’. Indeed, Mildenhall goes as far as calling such techniques, 'the enemy'. He describes the need to move towards, 'interactive feedback and online consumer dialogue tools', and 'conversational and real-time testing', because, 'working directly with consumers is exciting.'
Changing Face Of Marketing Research
Similar concerns are expressed by the Vice-Chairman of Ogilvy Group, Rory Sutherland, who comments that, 'the other failing of marketing is that it is over-dependent on conventional market research as its sole source of wisdom about human behavior. It has thus denied itself access to many valuable insights which come from understanding unvoiced, subconscious influences on decision-making. As David Ogilvy once said, 'The trouble with research is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say'.
Sutherland isn't talking about digital data directly but he points to a failing of big brands that the firehose of online bits and bytes is addressing. Historically, brand marketeers have assumed that if they take the time out to ask innocent bystanders how their wonderful plans for a brand extension of toothpaste can be improved, the least people can do is answer them in an enthusiastic and factual manner. However, this is a partial view at best. Much like waterboarding, the average brand research session leaves people happy to spout any old nonsense in order to satisfy the crazies who are demanding real opinion and insight about the rational use of toiletries.
'The reliance on attitudinal data we once had in market research is fading and being replaced by behavioral data,' says Professor Girish Punj from the University of Connecticut School of Business in Storrs. 'What people are buying online and their interactions with call centers. The new phenomenon people are calling 'big data' is 80 or 90 percent of the behavioral kind. This means that some of the attitudinal stuff on which marketing research is based is no longer sufficient for companies to make good decisions based on what their customers do,' he adds.
The Dangers Of Make-Believe
'Big Data' is taking over from 'Social' as the buzzword du jour. However, just like social, big data means entirely different things to different people. There isn't a single version or guidebook.
For marketeers, one implication is that the windows of their hermetically-sealed brand laboratories - where control is everything - are cracking. The result is that a glorious range of street-level cultures, aromas, communities and flavours are wafting into these highly-scrubbed, clinical environments. The challenge is that these new influences aren't easily bottled and segmented demographically, psychographically or into any other spreadsheet-friendly format.
However, make no mistake, these exotic new sensations are all raw data about actual, not reported, consumer behaviour. Brands that abandon their laboratories for the hubbub of the street will benefit from an instant connection with consumers. Those that don't will increasingly find themselves in a world of make-believe.