How to Fix the Problem When Big Data Fails in Digital Media Planning

Building a closed, symbiotic loop with creativity

Natural systems have a closed loop. Think about a tree: Its roots gather water and nutrients, enabling the tree to grow limbs and leaves that capture sunlight and provide shelter and food for insects and animals. The leaves fall and return nitrogen to the soil, providing nutrients back to the tree's roots. Take any piece of that out—the water, for example—and the whole system fails.

Charlie Fiordalis Alex Fine

All digital marketing systems want to have a closed loop but can't always achieve one. They don't fully come alive until they can optimize based on feedback. This symbiosis requires different kinds of talents and skill sets to be in place, just like you need both sunlight and water to make a tree spring to life. Ecommerce has enjoyed closed-loop systems with true ROI optimization for years. You can identify, score, track and optimize leads to your online store with ease.

But, most brand marketers aren't so lucky.

For example, in traditional television entertainment, there's a gap between digital marketing and the TV screen itself. Your mobile phone likely isn't your remote, yet. It is quite possibly by your side, though, serving as a second screen for social media chatter and more. Even so, there is a hurdle in closing the loop. A 32-year-old woman in Albuquerque, N.M., might retweet @Outlander_Starz during the latest episode of Outlander, but without the right measurement system, we don't know if she actually tuned in to the show.

The situation is even more challenging when it comes to brick-and-mortar operations without an ecommerce imperative—grocery stores, automotive dealerships, gas stations, etc. There's a gap between any online advertising efforts and the physical location where we need them to go. Even if we're able to tell that consumer engagement for an automotive brand is highest in the evenings on tablets, what we need to know is what combination of media and creative leads to the highest number of physical visits to the showroom.

Thankfully, mobile has proven itself to make a big difference. We all have "free" apps, use Wi-Fi or carrier signals and browse the mobile web. Each of these gives off a stream of location data that marketers use to target ads. In addition to delivering targeted impressions, we can tell where a phone is located. We know where it sleeps (more often than not, on the bed stand, ready to be used the second the morning alarm goes off), where it goes during weekdays (whether commuting to work or heading out of town to a business meeting), and where it goes anywhere and everywhere in-between.

As an industry we have come to rely on mobile data, and other sources of data as well, as connective tissue in our attempt to tie together consumers' activities on interactive screens and their multifaceted lives in the real world.

Sounds like a solid way forward, yes? Not so fast. Big data alone does not a successful media plan make. Analysis and creative thinking are equally vital. Lose them in the equation and gaining the right mix is impossible. The loop is undone.

Media buyers and planners need to filter through data from disparate, disconnected channels. That sort of work requires juggling multiple skills sets and talents. Most marketers leave creativity to their creative ad agencies, but it's needed on the media side as well.

You need a team that can use the left side of their brains to design a marketing system and the right side to creatively bridge gaps to establish a closed loop for effective optimization. This is a primary responsibility of the media agency, and clients need to challenge their agencies to be more creative and find solutions to establish actionable systems that harness the power of data. Data is only as good as the system it lives within and the thinking it inspires, thinking that requires creative synchronization between the analytical left brain and the creative right brain.

Kate Crawford, a principal researcher at Microsoft and co-chairwoman of a White House symposium on society and AI, recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed that predictive programs are only as good as the data they are trained on, and that data has a complex history. She pointed to a Carnegie Mellon study showing that women were less likely than men to be shown ads on Google for highly paid jobs. Whether the issue was a flaw in the data or a flaw in the thinking behind the algorithm, it underscores the need to focus on how we go about examination and evaluation alongside the process of information gathering.

A timely example powered by Pokemon Go: John Hanke, CEO of Pokemon Go developer Niantic, said in the Financial Times that Niantic is planning to offer sponsored in-game locations. That's smart, but how about taking it one step further with sponsored lures at scale? Imagine Dunkin' Donuts sponsoring a Pokemon Go month that includes lures at all locations, a special drink and a Dunkin'-themed Pokemon to catch. Great idea—now how do you measure and optimize it? Mobile data will be key to tie together the physical and digital world to note impressions on each individual, their physical conversion to Dunkin', and subsequent purchases and lift in visitation. It takes expertise, creativity, follow-though and is absolutely worth the effort.

Media agencies that don't pair innovative, critical thinking with big data are simply a losing proposition. Challenge your agency to creatively close the loop, leverage left and right brain thinking, and your marketing system will firmly plant roots and flourish.

Charlie Fiordalis (@admergencyis chief digital officer at Media Storm.

This story first appeared in the September 12, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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