The Perils of Online Data


Welcome to The Data Age. Businesses today are riding a tsunami of customer data based on users’ online activity. And marketing and advertising professionals are inundated with sales pitches from companies promising to help corral that data and mine it for insights. Obviously, there is enormous upside potential for any company that can successfully derive actionable insights into customer behavior and intent.

But it doesn’t do you much good if you don’t have the right data in the first place or if you make misguided assumptions about the underlying validity of that data. And in terms of customer online behavior & activity—and the data it generates—all that glitters may not be gold. Your “data analysis” may actually be more a leap of faith.

Peril #1: The Art of The Self

Socrates said, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” Deep self-knowledge is a super power. It enables us to understand what we actually need and desire; our failings & faults; and what motivates us to take action. As marketing professionals, having those insights into our customers and audience is The Holy Grail—an incredibly powerful and useful avenue to understanding and predicting customer intent, need, and potential lifetime value.

Everyone thought that the move to digital would make that infinitely more achievable. We could track what people were doing, saying, and reacting to and use that info to hone targeting, segmenting, and messaging. And it is infinitely better in terms of data generation than offline venues like print or broadcast advertising.

However, there’s a big issue: People behave differently online. They’re master curators of the image they want to present. They’re not themselves; they project who they wish to be, an idealized or escapist version of themselves.

For marketers, this leads to a lot of false positives. Is a twentysomething on Instagram—bedecked from head-to-toe in knockoff Louis Vuitton, standing next to a Gulfstream & #hashtagging like crazy—truly a potential customer for Louis Vuitton or Gulfstream? Unlikely.

Granted, there’s value for brands in being aspirational. But generic online usage, tracking & keyword data can be dumb and/or misleading, and a lot of marketing money is subsequently wasted by being based on it. And it’s not just the case with luxury poseurs and “influencers.” Each of us positions and manipulates our online “personas” to some degree to cast ourselves in the best light—from work experience to the books we read and the experiences we have. Those little stretches of the truth may seem harmless to us, but companies make spending decisions based on that information.

Peril #2: “Opinions are a lot like…”

Well, we won’t finish the infamous quote; but needless to say, “everyone has one.” And with traditional online surveys, polls, and comments, everyone has their own media network through which to broadcast their opinions.

But again, we see a problem. Similar to people curating their own online personas, we often too present opinions that don’t reflect what we actually think. This has been extensively studied in the wake of huge political polling misses, from Brexit to U.S. political races.

There are two factors at work. First, we often tell pollsters and survey vendors what we think that person or organization wants to hear. It can be because we’re embarrassed by our true opinions; want to obfuscate, or just want to avoid conflict.

Second, we often speak & comment extraordinarily confidently on topics & issues about which we know little. The issues surrounding “fake news” and “alternative media” have amplified this phenomenon and created a warped, algorithm-based world that just reinforces what we read & interact with—regardless of whether it’s factual.

You might say: “This is really no different than the blowhards at my local bar, pontificating on issues large and small.” However, this phenomenon is not just found in hot button political issues. People often have misconceptions or just plain incorrect information on everything from healthcare & finances to the latest car or tech device or even something as inane as celebrity news.

And guess what? Billions of advertising dollars are spent—and marketing messages customized—premised on assumptions of what brands think you and I know based on what we read, comment, watch and interact with. But what if that fundamental, base knowledge or contextual understanding actually isn’t there? It means that companies make a lot of misplaced assumptions about us.

What’s the answer?

These “perils” present important hurdles for marketing and advertising and yet, many companies’ marketing teams still carry on as if on autopilot. It’s just “the way things are and nothing much can be done about it.”

But what if you could amplify your marketing and sales results by uncovering peoples’ actual base knowledge and understanding on the issues and topics that impact your business and your customers’ decision making? Ironically the answer may lie in “answers.” That is: Answers to questions delivered within a learning or assessment experience.

Anyone who has ever sat for an exam knows that there’s nothing more effective at getting at what you know or don’t know than a quiz, assessment or test. And if you take away the high-pressure environment of educational or career stakes being involved, learning experiences are actually enjoyable and engaging for the user.

For marketing and advertising professionals, that amplified engagement generates valuable data, allowing you to discover users’ underlying understanding of your products, services, or the topics and issues that impact them. And those knowledge gaps provide rich opportunities for brands to better educate their markets and drive desired actions.

Quizzes and assessments presented as audience engagement tools allow you to provide your audience with richer and deeper “discovery experiences” with your content, products, and services—and provide your business with the richer and deeper information & data you need to hone your marketing messaging and make smarter decisions about your advertising investments.

Who wins?

A.   Your customers

B.   Your business

C.   All of the above