Russell Parsons: To reap the benefits of data, first understand its limitations

The promise of data is as big as the volume available. Don’t jump at the sight of a spreadsheet promising cheap reach at scale, however. Take a moment to ask, what am I trying to achieve here?


Data has been getting it in the neck lately. Not a month goes by without me being
sent a report detailing customer concern over transparency and misuse. Throw in the spectre of the soon-to-be-introduced General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and it is safe to say that use of data in marketing is under the spotlight.

When I first began at Marketing Week, one piece of received wisdom (or buzz speak) dominated many conversations – that “data was the oil in marketing’s engine” or other such motoring analogies. Dizzy with all that ‘big data’ offered, wide-eyed marketers saw a super-efficient future of one-to-one engagement that satisfied customers and their boss equally.

Before I continue, I just want to point out that I am not a data denier. The fact there is more data that provides evidence for why you should do something and that proves the value of your strategic and tactical decisions is clearly a wonderful advance. It can elevate the standing of marketing and help drive business performance.

It is time for sober reflection, however.

The role of programmatic in the brand safety issue threw up lots of questions. One thing it did highlight was how data on a spreadsheet can blind marketers not willing or able to ask the right questions. Data will tell you that programmatic is definitely the most efficient way of reaching customers online but it falls well short of revealing if it’s the most effective or right thing to do.

The narrative that data-driven, increasingly personalised marketing is the holy
grail has also turned the heads of many marketers away from investing in media channels that don’t offer the same. We are, however, getting way too far ahead of ourselves. P&G’s objective to deliver personalised messages at scale is lofty and far from being realised. Most of what is described as personalisation is little better than unsolicited addressed mail, and equally as annoying.

If you become too precise in your communications you risk excluding the new customers who will grow your brand. Outdoor, TV and radio offer reach, awareness, share of voice, if that is your objective. Not all marketing is direct marketing.

We have published lots of articles recently asking some of the big questions around data.
Our article on “over-datafication” explores whether marketers are leaning on data at the
expense of objective decision making, while the current inefficiencies in data management and the impact of GDPR were recently explored by marketers from a range of sectors.

Marketers need to ask the big questions, take control of data-driven processes and in turn gaining a better understanding of what data can and cannot do.

Data remains a massive opportunity but only for marketers with a greater appreciation of the benefits and limitations. Don’t jump at the sight of a spreadsheet promising cheap reach at scale. Take a moment to ask, what am I trying to achieve here?

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  • Pete Austin 11 Oct 2017 at 5:18 pm

    Re: “If you become too precise in your communications you risk excluding the new customers who will grow your brand”.

    Indeed, but not if you use data properly. You need a platform that does more with your data, allowing you to experiment at a lower cost and quickly assess the results of marketing. Allowing you to engage increasingly more of these prospects who are not yet customers.

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