The last few years have seen big data advocates swarm over every facet of the industry like ants over sugar. For an organization to maintain a competitive edge in the modern business world, it needs to incorporate data into its everyday decision making processes. Nowhere is this more true than for marketing departments.
Since Edward Bernays took the theories of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, and applied them to advertising, marketing has been about understanding human behavior and manipulating it to encourage people to buy their wares. Back in Bernays’ day, there was a more active conflict between consumerism and a sort of hidden shame that people held about the desire to make money. The last 30 years has, for whatever reason, seen this shame more or less wholly disappear. Now marketing and consumerism exist unfettered by any kind of puritanical embarrassment that may once have existed.
We now live in a world that is largely based on consumption. Whether or not this is a bad thing is beside the point - what it means is that human behavior is dictated by our desire to buy, and this can easily be broken down into data points. This data is fast proving itself as the best tool in a marketers’ quest to understand what makes people tick, helping to establish both what makes them buy and where to apply pressure to bend them to their will.
The number of these data points has grown exponentially as people’s shopping habits have moved online, and marketers are able to apply analytics to vast datasets that show when they buy, what part of a promotional campaign drives them to purchase, and even things like the area of a web page people’s eyes gravitate towards. And its usefulness is no secret to marketers. A new survey of 308 CMOs and business unit directors by Forbes Insights, ‘The Predictive Journey: 2015 Survey on Predictive Marketing Strategies’ found that 86% of executives with experience in predictive analytics believe the technology has delivered a positive return on investment for their business.
Subsequently, new marketing roles completely dedicated to understanding data have arisen. The CMO’s role is increasingly tying in with the CTO’s, as the ability to analyze patterns, understand segmentation, and decipher the highest probability of success from user tests become of greater importance than the traditional Don Draper creative visionary types.
However, while big data has the ability to tell you a lot about marketing campaigns, it is still useless without a deep understanding of human psychology. It is important to remember that data is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Finding trends is the easy part, understanding why they are occurring is more difficult. Freud’s theories of human nature remain as relevant as they were when Bernays started to use them, and while some of our behaviors and attitudes may have changed, our base instincts remain the same. The impulse to group together for survival, for example, and the need to impress our potential mates with status symbols and power are still at the root of marketing.
It’s easy to set up a shop on the path that most people walk down, and data can show you which path that is, but it can’t always tell you how to make people purchase as they’re walking down it. And often when it comes to marketing, the better option is to set up shop on any path and make people want to come down there to find you. Marketers need data, but data needs marketers even more.