The Age of Data

3 Things Marketers Should Be Thinking About

Each year one topic stands out at SxSW Interactive. Past years have been dominated by the rise of social, 3-D printing, content, etc. In 2015, data took center stage. 

Be Careful of "Data In, Gospel Out"

Data-driven experiences enable a personal touch and meaningful connection. But even with factual inputs, marketers must be wary of trusting the results as infallible. It’s easy to make incorrect assumptions and consequently provide irrelevant experiences and communications.

Let’s look at Google Now as an example. Google Now automatically provides real-time insights based on usage of Google products and their associated data. For example, it highlights live sports scores from teams you’ve searched for. Or, tells you when to leave for the airport to catch your flight based on your itinerary and nearby traffic data. Google knows me better than most of my friends do. But even with a mountain of data, one incorrect piece of information can send Google in the wrong direction. Recently, someone with a similar name and e-mail checked into a Las Vegas hotel. As I was sitting in Minnesota, the front desk errantly sent me their room confirmation to my Gmail. That’s all it took to have my Google Calendar automatically updated with my supposed hotel stay and Google Now alerting me to the weather and traffic conditions in Las Vegas. This is an innocuous example, but highlights the impact one outcome can have on subsequent experiences. For marketers it can mean improper geographic targeting of messaging, incorrect attributes associated with customer profiles, to name a few.

Companies looking to leverage data need to be vigilant about data freshness, analyzing multiple data points as signals to ensure quality and providing feedback loops for users. To Google’s credit, they offer several of these notions directly in-line with Google Now insights—for example, allowing me to “Hide scores to avoid spoilers” (feedback) and inform me how long ago I indicated data preferences with the option to make changes (data freshness).

Data is powerful, it just needs to be handled with care. The goal of checks and balances should be to prevent one misstep from causing a domino effect of subsequent stumbles.

Data Needs Creativity Like a Fish Needs Water

All the data in the world is useless without the ability to use it meaningfully. Data in its purest form is like a raw material, full of potential but requiring a process to extract its value. That process for marketers is creativity. Infographics are a good example. Data and figures are the bedrock, but it’s the savvy and storytelling capability of designers who bring the numbers to life visually and connect with an audience. Another example is in the social realm. Many companies now conduct real-time social analytics to stay on top of what topics are piquing their customers; but technology and data to identify trends isn’t enough. You have to apply those findings to content in order to garner any value. An example shared at SXSW illustrates this point. Best Buy noticed on Beyoncé’s birthday, the term “beyday” was getting significant social usage among their fan base. So, they created the following tweet: “Is it too late to change our name to “Best Bey” for the day? #beyday.” This generated a huge increase in exposure relative to their usual tweet impact. Data indicated the opportunity, creativity seized on it—data plus creativity was the answer.

Marketers often leverage data exclusively for their own efforts when the data they possess is equally or more impactful for other areas of the organization. This represents the second type of creativity data requires—the ability to gather, understand and apply data to impact the broader organization. Creativity in this sense isn’t limited to the traditional industry definitions. For example, customer research may illustrate geographic preferences where certain color products are preferred in different areas of the country, indicating marketing messages should be tailored to those regional tastes. This insight also impacts supply chain strategy so stores in the East, where green is popular, don’t run out of stock. Marketers need to become multilingual when it comes to their data.

This new data-fueled approach represents a fundamental shift for marketers in two ways. First, teams must change how they work. There seems to be a tenuous relationship between analytically minded practitioners and those on the creative side, but in reality it should be a symbiotic relationship. It’s time for data scientists and analytics experts to get in the trenches with designers, user experience professionals, strategists and developers. Data and creativity are powerful on their own, but exponentially more valuable when working in tandem.

The second change lies in the organizational responsibility of the CMO and their marketing team. Their responsibility is elevated, as they must understand, share and integrate their data to impact all verticals within the organization. In the same way technological advances have intimately linked IT and marketing, data will forge a closer relationship with marketing and the broader organization.

We're Entering an Unregulated Era

The prevalence of data today and its application in marketing is outpacing oversight. Data use in marketing isn’t a new phenomenon, but the increase in sources, algorithm-based experiences and rise of the IoT is changing the landscape. There’s a shift from a focus on privacy to fairness, with a regulatory system trying to keep pace. Marketers are left to navigate without clear guidelines in an industry with a complicated history of self-regulation. However, the same principle that creates loyal customers—transparency—is the defining characteristic to keep in mind when leveraging data to drive experiences.

Regulations to date have largely focused on data privacy, including a push of marketers to minimize the amount of data collected, ask for consent, ensure secure connections, etc. Data fairness is next on the horizon. Data fairness looks at whether the data that is driving experiences is appropriate and transparent to users. An example of unfair practice is charging customers more for a product or service based on information about where they live or the device they’re using (e.g. charging iOS users, who tend to be more affluent, more than Android users.) While this is an obvious example of unfair usage, gray areas are rampant. What if an algorithm determines one group of customers should receive money-saving offers while others shouldn’t? Is that a reasonable attempt to drive a sale or is it no different than simply offering others a cheaper price? At what point does it become discriminatory? And therein lies the issue; algorithms are inherently discriminatory. They’re created specifically to analyze and adapt experiences to provide different results to users.

Nicole Wong, the former US Deputy Chief Technology Officer, said politicians don’t understand technology sufficiently enough to deal with these issues. They are filled with immense complexity and are forcing government and regulatory bodies to adapt. An example of this is the FTC recently forming the Office of Technology Research and Investigation, aimed at investigative research on technology issues like “…privacy, data security, connected cars, smart homes, algorithmic transparency, emerging payment methods, big data, and the Internet of Things.” It’s a big undertaking, made more difficult by the technical talent gap in the public sector. The same skills the government requires to properly understand and drive regulation of data often fetch much greater compensation packages in for-profit organizations.

There are no hard and fast rules for marketers to abide by today and it’s incumbent upon the industry to use data responsibly. The convention of including an info link on ad units describing to users to why they’re receiving the ad is becoming prevalent. Facebook, for example, allows users to “mute” ads they don’t like, explore “why am I seeing this” (with granular targeting detail like age and location targeting) and even hide ads from certain sources. Marketers need to adhere to three concepts to ensure fair data use:

  1. Be transparent about when and what data you’re collecting
  2. Explain how that data will impact the experience provided
  3. Enable users the opportunity to access and manage their data

About the Author

As Director of Digital Strategy, Matt works to ensure a seamless experience across the continuum of the customer lifecycle. He has helped direct the digital approach and execution for clients such as Polaris Industries, Bauer Hockey, The National Hockey League, Target Corporation, Sharp Electronics and Wet n’ Wild cosmetics. In his 8 years at Olson, Matt has amassed extensive multichannel experience, including solutions spanning web development, mobile web, social, native applications, CRM, organic search, digital connectors, e-mail, SMS and more. Matt lives for the “f’s” in life: family, friends, fishing and food.