How Marketing Got Drunk on Data

In the late 1990’s my company was building websites at a furious pace. They weren’t cheap then. You needed to know HTML and then Java and of course, Flash. Now you can build a website in a few hours without needing to know a single line of code. Back then, we ran web statistics software off our server where we hosted websites. We’d spent $80,000 on a Sun Spark server with an 80Gb hard drive. The statistic of choice? How many “hits” you got on your website. Traffic sources, bounce rate, sessions, audience segmentation and device type? Didn’t exist. Google Analytics? Google didn’t even exist then either. It was Yahoo! and Alta Vista and the idea of SEO wasn’t even around. My background in cultural anthropology served us well for building human-centric technology and marketing it.

Slowly though, web analytics started to get a little better. But you had to pay, often quite a lot, to get deeper insights. Then along came social media and things got really weird. We started counting “likes” on Facebook. Then along came the idea of engagement metrics, the definition still remains a bit fuzzy. Google Analytics came along and it was free. Still is. SEO became a thing. Remember Page Rank? How marketers fretted over that one number. It even entered the lexicon of the C-Suite. New analytics tools that measured, sliced, diced, chopped and whipped up frothy charts that bedazzled the eyes of marketers. They could measure things. That may well be when the CEO and CFO turned their baleful eye to marketers. Now, so the C-Suite said, we can measure marketing. And marketers too, felt such a joy. Yes, yes, they could.

I lived this. I spent over twenty years as a marketer, bringing several technology products, hardware and software, to international markets. I had multi-million dollar budgets, built teams. Aggressively jumped on the bandwagon in the first .com boom of leveraging unpaid media to drive product awareness. Later, I even co-founded a social media analytics company, focusing more on public and foreign policy. I also co-founded the Ice Awards for creative in advertising in Atlantic Canada.

Along came terms like inbound marketing, social media dashboards, user engagement, cohorts and many, many others. In online forums for marketing, from Reddit to LinkedIn and beyond, the discussion and debates over what metrics were meaningful raged on. Whole conferences were dedicated to marketing analytics. Such debates still rage.

Marketing, by 2016, was thoroughly drunk on data. Too drunk. Out of control drunk. Obnoxiously so in many cases. That friend you have that doesn’t know when to stop and gets all smart-mouthed too. Lest I sound anti-analytics in marketing, far from it. Done right, with actually less data, marketing has benefitted greatly from analytics. But it also got too drunk and something was lost. Creative.

With search engines and SEO/SEM and social media posts, marketers became beholden to the data. They started to feed the analytics machine instead of the customer. At one point, tech industry analysts indicated that the CMO would have a bigger IT budget than the CIO. Most of that would go to analytics tools. Today, I spend a lot of time helping marketing departments refine their MarTech stack. Most of the time they have more than they need. Wasting time feeding machines rather than customer demand.

Fortunately, changes are coming and as well, many CMO’s and VP’s of marketing are turning away from too much data. Cookies are on their way out. Even Google is ending them. Privacy laws are tightening around the world and consumers are pushing for more protection of their data that marketers traded so willy-nilly for years.

What was easy, so marketers thought, won’t be so easy in the coming years. Marketers will have to address the creative side again. They’ll have to get back to the customer, not the cohort, not the personas, but the real people that buy products. Fused with data done the right way, this could very well be an exciting time ahead for marketing. What I’ve come to find is that sometimes, less data ends up with more customers and a lower CAC. Most marketers don’t include their data and analytics costs into their CAC even. When they do, they’ll find it actually drives their CAC benchmark higher.

Marketing is sobering up now, getting better with data. This bodes well for consumers.



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