We came upon an interesting article in Harvard Business Review recently. The article, titled Marketers Flunk the Big Data Test, offered insights into how marketers are using (or aren’t using) big data as part of their decision-making process. Summarizing a study completed by Corporate Executive Board (CEB), the article draws attention to the increasingly complex relationship between old ways of marketing and new ways to access powerful information. We thought a few key points were of particular interest.

The Past Doesn’t Matter As Much As Much As You Might Think

The article notes that most marketers responded that they depend on intuition, knowledge of customer base, or gut feeling for their marketing decisions. If you are in charge of the marketing at your company you might think this makes a lot of sense. In fact, you might feel the exact same way if you are in sales. You know who your big customers are. You know what they want, you know how to reach them, and you know how to maintain their loyalty.

Or do you?

The article astutely points out something that should probably seem obvious to us. Times have changed. While experience is still incredibly valuable in the world of marketing, relying on “how we’ve always done it” can actually be detrimental today. How you always did things did not include social media. You may not have relied on email marketing or mobile apps. There are countless new channels and opportunities available to explore, but to use them effectively, marketers will have to move away from that “gut feeling.” More research will be needed about how customers really do prefer to receive information from your company. Minds will need to be open to new possibilities.

Study Up on Stats

There was an ominous note in the article that has potential repercussions across many different marketing platforms. Namely, the article reported that only 5% of survey participants were able to answer all five questions included in the poll, which tested the recipients’ ability to solve basic to intermediate statistics problems. Statistics are not just necessary in order to make sense of “big data.” You need some statistical awareness to make sense of ROI, customer potential, reach, market share, and more. The fact that most marketers weren’t able to answer five easy to intermediate statistical problems is rather startling, but it also explains why so many marketers may rely on things like intuition. When you’re going with your gut, no stats are needed.

Bright And Shiny Data

The study found that 11% of participants said they were data hogs. Most of their decisions are based on data, and there is no such thing as “too many dashboards.” You might think that this would be an ideal way to approach marketing in this era of measurement and accountability, but in fact, the study revealed that marketers that got bogged down in data details were not highly effective. For these data hounds, gathering data becomes the obsession versus actually concentrating on how to use that data. A person in this category may spend hours crunching numbers in the sales channel by region or territory but never take an action based on that research. A marketer obsessed with data may be able to tell you the favorite color of all of your Facebook fans, but they might not be able to tell you the ROI of your latest social media marketing effort.

Use a Telescope, Not a Microscope

The most significant take-away of this study is that there needs to be a happy medium when approaching marketing. Rather than looking at data through a microscope and magnifying the importance of any one statistics, the tool marketers need to use is a telescope. Focus on the big picture – things like corporate goals, lifetime value of customers, and sales goals. Use data to make those goals more attainable. If you want to reach a certain goal, data, if interpreted properly, can tell you if that’s feasible. If you want to increase sales, data can tell you what you need to do. Use marketing data like you would use an astronomy guide when looking up at the night sky. Focus on a star, then review the data to see what it is. Identify a goal, then use data to see how to achieve it.

What is your organization doing with data? Do your sales and marketing teams get too bogged down in data, or do they rely on intuition and “gut feelings?” We’d love to hear your thoughts!

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kevinkrejci/6259499293/ via Creative Commons