Brands Must Turn to the Dark Data Side

A lot of vital insight remains hidden

Our industry traditionally, naturally focuses on the data most visible, most apparent and most readily captured—the data that streams through our digital, mobile, video and retail channels. But people today interact with hundreds of brands in infinitely different ways. And each touchpoint is not just a data point, it’s part of an interconnected story that is the total brand experience.

But that story is not being told.

Many brands myopically read chapters—versus full volumes—in reaching conclusions about brand interactions. As a result, they lose understanding about the full brand narrative in the eyes of consumers. And the insight that’s missing is hiding in the dark, waiting to be found.

To elaborate, there is a duality with data today. There’s the data that is apparent and the data that waits in the dark. The latter sits in the spaces in-between channels. It’s marketing's Dark Data, and it’s the stuff that holds the most meaningful truth.

The Dark Data idea differs from other data debates. It’s not about Big Data (that tidal wave of channel data marketers try to mine to derive greater insights). And it’s not about Small Data (a tailored data strategy aimed at driving real insights in the most efficient approach possible). Dark Data is about linkages—the ties that connect all the data points together to reveal what’s truly going on with a brand.

How does this play out in reality? Look at a day in the life of our average consumer. He or she wakes up and sees a commercial about his or her favorite bar of soap. The consumer uses the product in his or her morning routine, goes about the day and, while surfing online, happens upon a promotion by this brand that seems "off."

The consumer bought that soap because it appealed to his or her eco-friendly habits, and its scent was refined; but now this person sees an online promotion with a bear in a costume that seems at odds with the brand. The consumer goes to the grocery store and, while making purchases, he or she goes to pick up a new bar of soap and notices that the package has changed. It’s no longer the simple, green, iconic packaging that he or she recognizes and loves. It looks different—pink, cartoony. The consumer questions whether this is the right brand to use after all.

What just happened? Our consumer interacted with a brand four times that day—some in controlled brand environments, some not—and moved from being a brand loyalist to a brand questioner. Why? It wasn’t because of one decision. It was because of multiple decisions made by a brand that is not connecting the dots, and not looking at the negative space of the brand and mining the Dark Data. Instead, decisions were made by different silos of the marketing team, who likely did not consider all the other moving parts. But in the mind of the consumer, it was all connected, and in his or her mind the brand was telling a disconnected story that didn't resonate well.

This happens every day. The best brands tell complete, consistent stories in which every consumer touchpoint connects to the bigger brand story arc. But many brands miss the big picture in pursuing tactical marketing efficiencies.

Brands monitor many different aspects of their marketing, from CPC rates and SEO to brand health tracking. But most people fail to tie all these channels and metrics together to assess total brand experience. In the minds of the consumers, that's what matters most and makes the difference between brand love and brand apathy.

So how can brands mine this Dark Data and start to understand their overall experience? Beyond channel-specific data and general health trackers, put into place a brand experience tracker that audits all consumer touchpoints—retail, online, packaging, service, sponsorship—to understand consumers’ true perception of the brand. With a tracker in place, brands can exactly determine their weakest linkages, then strengthen their experience.

A robust audit is helpful in understanding organizationally why weak linkages occurred in the first place. Is it poor planning, organizational dissonance, financial underinvestment?

Finally, with the initial audit completed, brands must continue to monitor their total brand experience, much like they do their brand health, as shifts occur, requiring proactive experience management.

Given our age of media fragmentation and an increasing need for brand authenticity, experience rules. It’s time marketers invested in the Dark Data resources needed to ensure that their brand experience story is one with a happy ending.

Don’t be afraid of the dark.

Elena Klau (@eklau) is svp, director of strategy and insights, North America Momentum Worldwide 

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