Data lessons from Scotland

In the space of a few days, data has turned the narrative of next week’s Scottish referendum on its head. Since YouGov published its weekend poll showing the Yes campaign in the lead for the first time by 51 per cent to 49 per cent, media outlets and politicians have been poring over the facts and figures underpinning this trend in a frantic attempt to understand how we’ve suddenly arrived at the brink of Scottish independence.

jonny bacon

Some claim the Better Together campaign became complacent, mistakenly believing the referendum was already sewn up months ago. Others suggest that a narrowing of the polls was inevitable as the referendum date got closer and that the Yes camp is at an inherent advantage thanks to the positive terms in which it can frame its arguments.

For all the complexities of the debate, though, there are certain lessons that marketers can draw from this unpredictable contest about both the power and pitfalls of data.

1. Strengthen your convictions

Events since Sunday’s YouGov poll show that data is the bedrock of confident and creative marketing. Armed with the knowledge that it is now favoured by a small majority of the electorate, Alex Salmond’s Yes campaign has quickly transformed itself from underdog to champion of the people’s will. It is attacking the Better Together campaign with greater virulence than ever before and dismissing concerns about the practicalities of independence with greater ease. The best brands work in the same way – using data to fuel the creative instincts of its marketers and drive its commercial strategy forward.

2. Know your audience

The Yes campaign, led by the Scottish National Party (SNP), has also had success at harnessing data to win support at a grassroots level. Indeed much of the criticism currently levelled at the Labour Party is around its failure to mobilise support on the streets of Scotland with the same skill as the SNP. According to the polls a large proportion of women, working class voters and young people have all swung behind the independence cause in recent weeks, suggesting that the Yes campaign’s efforts in targeting these groups has helped to shift the needle. Brands that invest wisely in data mining and customer segmentation will understand the positive results such methods can bring.

3. Data can be misleading

But there is a glimmer of hope for Better Together – and a note of caution for marketers – in the fact that data trends can also be misleading. While YouGov put the Yes campaign in front at the weekend, another poll by Panelbase found that No still maintains a narrow lead. A new TNS poll today (9 September) also gives the No camp a one-point lead. The pro-independence camp is certainly gaining momentum, but reported behaviour is not the same as actual behaviour and there remains the possibility that a significant number of voters will change their minds when confronted with the choice on September 18th. Marketers must avoid drawing rash or premature assumptions from the data in front of them. It’s undoubtedly something that both sides in the independence debate will be keen to avoid as referendum day approaches.

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