Performance anxiety: how to deal with data overload

With so many new channels and tools at their disposal, Nicola Kemp asks how marketers can ensure that their focus on metrics and ROI is not at the expense of their creativity and self-esteem.

The three magic words that will make your chief financial officer's heart sing: return on investment. In the era of big data, marketers are armed with an ever-expanding range of data points by which they can improve, or prove, the efficiency of marketing campaigns - or at least select the data they need to retrospectively support their prior business decisions.

With so much data to guide and support every decision, surely marketers have better tools to do a better job, with less need for instinctive guesswork and risk-taking. To put it bluntly, they should be getting it more right, more often than ever; after all, isn't that what all this investment in data harvesting and analysis is for? In theory, yes. But is the growing focus on big data propelling marketing, or becoming a distraction? At a time when corporations can use a proliferating array of software to measure every aspect of their brand and marketing teams, are marketers at risk of feeling unappreciated, frustrated and demeaned?

The problem with some of these new marketing tools is that they can be both dehumanising and pressurising, overriding the invaluable creative instincts of the best marketers and creating false metrics of accountability that play to a short-term, one-dimensional view of marketing investment.

If marketers have to retrofit or re-engineer their work to fit with arbitrary metrics, it can be disabling for people who were previously trusted to produce great creative work.

Mark Bagnall, managing director of consumer research agency 2CV, says a relentless focus on measurement can become a distraction if it doesn't align with the broader metrics driving the business. "If marketers have to retrofit or re-engineer their work to fit with arbitrary metrics, it can be disabling for people who were previously trusted to produce great creative work," he warns.

According to Bagnall, big data can become a burden if marketers don't know what to do with it. "The key is not being blindsided into believing it is the answer to everything, or being put off by the vocabulary that has made it all sound very complex. Marketers need to regain confidence in their own expertise."

While often loath to admit it publicly, many in the industry are suffering from measurement fatigue. Jonathan Trimble, chief executive of ad agency 18 Feet & Rising, says the focus on metrics and ROI is curtailing creativity. "Data invokes a trigger-response approach to the world - a 'when we do this, that happens - don't do anything else please'," he explains.

The risk for marketers is that an obsession with real-time data can lead to knee-jerk responses. "The issue is that trends will turn, life changes, so too does the model. Some newer forms of data can get in the way of bettering your ROI by stepping back and applying imagination to the process over a longer game," adds Trimble.

The Genetically Modified Marketer

However, many in the industry believe a better understanding of, and affinity with, data can help marketers become more confident decision-makers and enhance their contribution at board level. Certainly marketers can empower themselves by getting to grips with technology and processes that were previously the preserve of the chief information officer and chief technology officer. It is no exaggeration to say that for many marketers this involves learning a new language.

Harper Reed, the chief technology officer for Barack Obama's historic US Presidential re-election campaign, says that programmers are the new creatives. "Technology is an aggressive insider language and my advice to marketers is the same as it would be if you were learning about mechanics: you buy the book about how cars work and you take the time to learn about it. We need to train people to understand this language."

Rather than feeling threatened by these new disciplines, smart marketers are actively embracing them. Matt Harris, head of consumer planning and marketing at Barclaycard Consumer Europe, says a new breed of marketer, which he dubs "genetically modified", is coming to the fore. He believes that while it is an exciting time to be in marketing, the skills needed have fundamentally changed.

It seems many marketers have already met this challenge. "We need to get better at using big data to make customer communications more relevant and improve the customer experience. As marketers, it is up to us to use this insight to actively improve the customer experience," adds Harris.

The myth of hard metrics

While many marketers and agencies have been quick to adopt the rhetoric of big data, there is no doubt that there remains a certain degree of scepticism in the industry. While the majority of marketers have recognised that a Facebook "like" is effectively the lowest form of human commitment, concerns remain that marketers are too homed in on seemingly "hard metrics" that reveal very little about their marketing performance, from Facebook "likes" and "fans" to Twitter followers.

Colin Strong, managing director of the business and technology team at market research agency GfK, warns: "Simply because more data is available doesn't mean we have to go down the reductionist route or rely on metrics with a dubious provenance."

Ultimately marketers need to become more technically savvy about the data they are using. Or, as some research directors put it, "fine-tune their bullshit detector". Certainly they should be wary of choosing marketing platforms for their measurability alone. Measuring the effectiveness of sponsorship, for example, is never going to be as simple as a cost-per-click transaction. On the flipside, a banner ad is highly unlikely to deliver the emotional engagement and "passion points" of an expertly delivered sponsorship strategy.

Trimble argues that the open visibility of a brand to be judged by "likes", views and followers distracts significantly from the effort and investment by marketers. "You shouldn't spend time guaranteeing these levels of 'playground popularity' over just doing things that gain you real popularity," he adds.

While all advertising platforms and metrics were not created equal, marketers must guard against viewing digital statistics as "hard metrics" simply because they are easy to measure. "Years ago we said there were lies, damn lies and statistics. Now there is an explosion in the amount of data available, which allows people to use it to stop their viewpoint being challenged," warns Strong.

Data, then, can be a comfort-blanket for unsure marketers who lack the clear vision needed to make a brave decision. Yes, too much data can enhance performance anxiety by purporting to have all the answers, yet it also makes those answers more difficult to find than ever. Nonetheless, it can also prop up a second-rate marketer by offering a seemingly logical basis for decisions that might prove to be poor ones.

The squeezed marketer

Ultimately, marketers must recognise that big data does not always deliver big insights. While real-time marketing has revolutionised the discipline, it has also created far more data than most can cope with.

Clare Fuller, executive director at innovation and planning consultancy Promise Communispace, says that when everyone has to do more for less, use of data can become subjective. "The danger is that when marketers are squeezed, people look at numbers to confirm an existing prejudice," she warns.

Of course, as marketers become more time-poor and face a growing number of checks and balances, they may sacrifice their creative integrity to the tyranny of metrics. "When you are under pressure you are less likely to play the long game," adds Fuller. "Companies must recognise that if you focus on efficiency alone, the risk is that marketing becomes incredibly commoditised."

The big challenge for marketers, then, is ensuring that data remains a source of genuine insight. Neil Davidson, group planning director at integrated agency Billington Cartmell, advises: "Metrics need to be connected to something bigger; you can't be beholden to data in isolation, or short-term measures could skew a longer-term goal."

Post-digital behaviour

As we move into the post-digital age, smart brands are taking the time to reset and ensure that they haven't lost sight of the fundamentals while chasing the latest data point. For many, this has led to a renewed emphasis on face-to-face interaction.

Mandy Mainwaring, customer immersion manager at energy company E.ON, says that while the brand concentrates heavily on data and ROI, this is not to the detriment of traditional market research and forums. It also has an "open-house" approach to bringing customers into the business to discuss any issues they have.

"There is always a place for ROI and data, but we need to connect with consumers driving the business forward," she says. Instead of developing a marketing strategy around data points, E.ON has focused on better connecting with existing customers.

Ditch the fear factor

As social media continues to mature, so the perfect time has emerged for marketers to spring-clean their data strategies. 2CV's Bagnall says that marketers need to re-engage with their own confidence in what marketing and creativity is really about. "Marketers are, by default, creative - we aren't avatars or robots. We create a lot of data, but that's not the whole story."

The notion of a bigger focus on data and analytics killing creativity is nonsense.

Heath Podvesker, executive vice-president of analytics company MarketShare, says that marketers are coming to recognise that a better use of data can empower their role in the creative process. "The notion of a bigger focus on data and analytics killing creativity is nonsense," he says. "When people say it is killing creativity, it is either because they are intimidated by it, or the company they work for is too overbearing."

The explosion in data piles on the pressure to find the right answers (they must be in there somewhere, surely), and heightens the idea, particularly in the boardroom, that marketing is a numbers game that can and should be rigorously accountable. Both of these may be true, but to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the brand and the marketing job required. Moreover, there's no doubt that the more marketing can talk the metrics of the boardroom, the greater respect there will be for marketers' contribution. Hence the performance anxiety.

Even with all the data collated and investigated, however, there's rarely one answer to a brand-building challenge, and some answers can be more right than others. This is where the brilliance of the best marketers comes to the fore. Big data should not be about what is easiest to measure, but what people care about the most. The true depth of human emotions - whether that's how marketers feel about their jobs or how consumers view a brand or experience - will always be more meaningful than a data point. Understand that, and you'll have that performance anxiety licked.

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