data and opinions

Data vs. Opinion: Why You Need Both

The paradox of data as it applies to marketers is that, as we come to know more and more about our customers’ habits, interests, and buying behavior, we can lose our connection to them as human beings who are not just consumers.

Rather than simplifying insight collection, the proliferation of Big Data has added complexity. Increasing regulations and concerns around privacy make data harder to collect and manage, and the widening range of channels customers engage with makes it harder to interpret accurately. Where marketers need to pivot is to balance qualitative data findings with a constant stream of quantitative, first-hand customer feedback to allow organizations to maintain a complete, human perspective.

It’s undeniable that data is crucial to understanding market and consumer behavior, as well as brand and campaign performance. Marketing is not just advertising anymore. Data—and how it’s collected and used—is radically transforming how marketers operate. Indeed, Salesforce reports that between 2017 and 2019, the median number of data sources used by marketers jumped by 50%, from 10 to 15.

“Without data, you’re just a person with an opinion.” — W. Edwards Denning

Modern marketers know the value of data in understanding their customers. It can be the foundation of a great strategy, which can lead to great work. Yet savvy marketers know that, while it might be the beginning of a roadmap, data isn’t the only thing needed to reach the promised land of customer engagement and loyalty. The paradox of data is that it can make us less able to make decisions. Too much of it can be overwhelming, leading to analysis paralysis; we can become dependent on it in a way that inhibits our ability to act decisively. The paradox of data as it applies to marketers is that, as we come to know more and more about our customers’ habits, interests, and buying behavior, we can lose our connection to them as human beings who are not just consumers.

In the world of Big Data, AI, Predictive and Prescriptive Analytics, and other emerging technologies are data bringing us closer to our customers? Is it making us better at our jobs? Or is it overwhelming us, preventing us from making decisions about what to focus on and what to do? In short, data can be an obstacle to moving forward, which is why human intervention is so critical, and will only become more so in the information age.

In a world of Big Data, AI, and Predictive or Prescriptive Analytics, focusing too closely on the numbers can obstruct one’s path to innovation and reward. It’s imperative to take risks. Think, for example, of a Marketing campaign. If we looked at campaign performance data alone, we’d cancel the tactics that weren’t performing well without thinking through the “why” and adjusting appropriately. We’d only ever repeat the efforts that were performing well. In one sense, this is the smart thing to do—it’s the safe course of action. But it can also keep us locked in a closed cycle that always prioritizes immediate revenue generation over greater, longer-term impact.

How can you innovate if you walk away from something that might still have potential, or if you just keep doing the same things over and over? To stretch beyond the given (again, the safe), you have to overlay your experience, your intuition, and your judgment and take calculated risks. That’s when the reward comes.

A shining example of this is the transformation of the Houston Astros. Jim Crane, a businessman—not baseball royalty—bought the flailing, last-place team in 2011, and set about translating his business expertise into team performance by using big data to inform player assessment and in-game decision making. Three years later, in 2014, Sports Illustrated predicted that the Astros would win the World Series by 2017—and then they did. The team used data to turn the seemingly impossible into the real and remarkable.

Ironically, however, if Crane had looked only at what the numbers were telling him in 2011, he might never have bought the struggling team—for who would’ve envisioned them winning the World Series, given the stats? That’s where the judgment and the risk came in: Crane looked beyond the data, took a calculated risk, and achieved the seemingly impossible.

Marketers must use data to evaluate their environments and reveal their customers’ basic human needs. But designing a highly personalized and meaningful customer experience must extend beyond data to trigger an emotional response in an audience.

Human actions and nuances—those built around emotion, empathy, and judgment—will be a key differentiator for any marketer or brand leveraging data moving forward. (PWC reports that one in three consumers—32%—say they’ll walk away from a brand they love after just one bad experience.) When people are uncertain, they rely more on their feelings and their experience than they do data. Yes, the data is important—but equally important (if not more so) is the opinion one has of whether a certain course of action is appropriate. Give your current and potential customers a great experience and they’ll spend more, become your biggest advocates, and spread the word for you.

A great example of empathy-driven Marketing is Extra’s recent “Origami” campaign. Gum is a commodity to a large extent, an everyday staple used to freshen breath. Many brands over the years have run similar ads about romantic encounters, but Extra did something to stand out, asking customers to turn their gum wrappers into unique pieces of art. The heart-warming campaign went beyond the expected uses for the product and positioned it as being there for people in all of life’s little moments.

It celebrated the meaning in the seemingly mundane and forgettable events in people’s days, encouraging its customers to be a little more present in their hectic lives. This was the human touch that connected the brand with its audience, relating to them as more than just data points. Use data to drive engagement with your audiences, but don’t forget—they need this human touch. It’s what will connect them to you, and what will keep them connected.

Is the age of reason moving to an age of feeling? In some ways, yes; in others, no. There’s a need (and room) for both. In the age of Digital Transformation and AI, empathy and human judgment are more relevant and important than we think.


Theresa Forman is the recently appointed president of McMillan, a digital and creative agency that’s working with major brands like Tesla and United Rentals. Theresa just became president a few months ago after a long history at the agency helping them to grow their business. She has been responsible for new client signings, campaign direction and ultimately evolving the agency to what it has become today.

Photo by David Travis. This article originally appeared in MarTechSeries

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