Marketers Are Mistaking Information for Intimacy

The data paradox facing the industry in today's data-driven world

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We live in a hyper-connected world where more data is being collected than ever before. Every Google search, every credit card swipe and every tweet leaves behind a bread crumb of information that adds up to reams and reams of data. Even as you read these lines, you are offering up data about your device, geography, time spent and a host of other inputs.

The best market researchers on the planet are comedians.

However, though the amount of data available to marketers has increased exponentially over time, our ability to extract insight from said data has only marginally increased. This paradox amounts to a simple—yet significant—oversight on behalf of most marketers: We mistake information for intimacy.

Information consists of the factual representations of events that marketers use to better understand consumers. Site traffic, engagement across social networking platforms, purchases and search queries can reveal quite a bit about a consumer’s interests, preferences and desires. This kind of information is highly coveted by marketers and, to no surprise, has made data analytics a hot topic in our industry for almost 10 years now.

Look no further than the fallout surrounding Apple’s opt-out ad tracking option provided in its new OS to see just how vital this information is to marketers. Yet, despite having all this information, marketers still struggle to understand their consumers. How can that be?

Because search, purchase history and site traffic are not who people are—they are merely what people do. To understand who people are, you have to get much closer. You have to get intimate.

Before an important meeting, you likely go to LinkedIn to learn about the person(s) with whom you will be speaking: their current company and position, previous work experience, where they went to school, and perhaps mutual connections. Though armed with these facts, you don’t get to know the person until you’ve interacted with them, exchanged ideas or observed their mannerisms. These details are only revealed once you’ve moved beyond the statistical details.

Similarly, a person might look like the perfect catch on their dating profile, but it’s not until meeting them that you get a better sense of who they are. To know people requires intimacy, a closeness that traditional data metrics will never provide. We know this intuitively; however, when we get in the boardroom, we take off our “human hat” in exchange for our “marketing hat.” It’s time we got more human.

Here are a few tips to get us started:

We need more curiosity 

The best market researchers on the planet are comedians. Yes, Dave Chappelle, Sarah Silverman, Hasan Minhaj and Chris Rock are all better market researchers than we are. Why? Because they watch people with purpose.

They observe daily life until someone does something seemingly odd, and the comedian goes, “Huh, that was odd. Why did s/he do that?” And then they lean in a little more to investigate the phenomenon before noticing that more people do that very thing. At which point, the comedian applies the theory that best describes what has been observed and finds an interesting way to communicate it.

Once the comedian hits the stage and says, “Have you noticed that when you go to the mall you do X, Y, Z?” and we fall over laughing, thinking, “I totally do that.” Of course you do. This truth is only revealed through the curiosity that pushes us to look closer.   

We need a better repertoire of theory

Curiosity pushes us to look closer, but theory helps us derive meaning from what we observe. This is likely the hardest part for marketing practitioners because we’ve been so conditioned to discount the importance of theory.

We often use the refrain “that works in theory,” which only illuminates our misunderstanding of what theory truly is. Theory is the system of ideas and principles that explain what is. We use theory for everything. It is the basis for all activity and decision-making.

The problem isn’t the theory; it’s our lack of good theory. This is one of the driving reasons why I, an advertising executive, thought it was essential to pursue a doctorate degree. I wanted to deepen my repertoire of theory to better understand people and how they make meaning of their lived experiences.  

We need to invest the time

No amount of curiosity or theory repertoire can overcome a lack of time investment. We have to make time to get to know people. When we size up people quickly based on statistical representations, we tend to put people in boxes that amount to stereotypical tropes instead of the nuanced knowledge that only comes from intimacy.

As W.E.B. Dubois once wrote, “Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor—all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked—who is good? not that men are ignorant— what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.” Perhaps if we invest as much time getting to know people as we have done scaling our “data stacks,” we might have much more intimacy to accompany all that information.