Marketing: Analytics Dashboards or Intuitive Leaps?

(Originally posted in CMO.com)

Have you ever had a feeling you just couldn’t shake? Of course you have—“hunches” are the hallmark of any good marketer. It means you know a good campaign when you see it.

In fact, marketing decisions have historically been built on hunches, intuition, and other unquantifiable ideas. That’s easy to forget in this data-driven industry we now work in.

Here’s something else many people are forgetting: Breakthrough ideas don’t come from an analytics dashboard. They come from intuitive leaps.

Marketing Leap of Faith

So how do you know when you have a good idea in front of you? Popular wisdom says you should “trust your gut.” At Gigaom’s Roadmap 2013, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom also talked at length about hunch-driven design development. He maintained that it was Instagram’s secret to success.

Instagram began as an app called “Burbn.” Systrom had had a hunch. He polled its 100 users and found they were sharing photos more than anything else. Less than two years later, Instagram had more than 100 million users and a $1 billion price tag.

In Systrom’s world, data-based design plays an essential role in this process, but it’s about optimizing products, not developing them. Why? Systrom knows that the only way to develop something unique is with intuition, which is where your experience and instinct pay off.

Think about Systrom’s example in terms of a product campaign: Focus groups can guide you and offer you a tentative response. Despite the graphs and surveys, however, you still know that the final decision has to come from you, not the data. You have to trust your experience, your team, and, most of all, yourself.

Remember The Risks

Lots of marketing executives tell themselves that the decision they’re making isn’t risky because it’s based on data. But they’re wrong.

Some businesses live (and die) by the mantra, “Data doesn’t lie.” This is fine for objective measurements, such as impressions, click-throughs, and transactions, but for qualitative, subjective data—such as target interests, psychographics, and social data—it’s not nearly as clear-cut. Every single day, people lie, misremember, or skew the truth on surveys, in focus groups, and through comments and reviews.

Other flaws are at work: Whether they mean to or not, analysts bring biases when they organize data for a report. And data can certainly still be wrong, even when it’s laid out perfectly in an Excel chart or a PowerPoint deck. In the end, the wrong kind of data-driven approach isn’t that different from traditional market research: It’s lengthy, costly, and still means making some really big, dangerous assumptions.

There’s another angle of risk here: Thanks to the viral nature of modern media, one wrong hunch can devastate a brand. Now when a marketer makes the wrong call, millions of people can see it.

Scared? You should be.

But the good news is, when you get it right, viral recognition happens then, too. Netflix had a hunch that political cynicism would resonate with its audience, and it knew that “binge watching” was a trend among users. So Netflix released the entire first season of “House of Cards” at once. The move was so successful that Netflix is repeating that model with several other series.

Strengthen Your Strategy

The evidence in support of hunches is there. Marketers can get it right. But data can’t be discounted either. That’s why the best path forward is an integrated one, and there’s a specific strategy for marketers that combines data- and hunch-based approaches.

Think of your precampaign period as hunch-based. That means you trust your instinct on what your target wants, needs, and will respond to. Then, after you’ve crafted a campaign guided by instinct and intuition, you can use hard data to back up your strategy and optimize it.

There are lots of unique ways to hone your data for a more helpful, relevant viewpoint, such as using carefully selected focus groups or accessing social media platforms to get a closer look at your fans and followers. This will give you an in-depth, holistic look at who your target is, what they care about, and how they’re growing and changing so you can speak to them as people, not just customers.

Marketing isn’t just about crunching numbers—it relies on experience, knowing your audience, and having great intuition. Trust yourself, trust your gut, and then use data to support your hunches.

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