Beefy Big Data & A Question of Substance

The phrase “data-driven advertising” refers to the use of data gleaned from consumers’ online activity to deliver customized content to Web sites they are known to visit. Such content can take any number of forms, including advertorials, banners, interactive polling—some content staying constant, some swapped out for increased relevance to a particular user’s interests.

At issue, however, is whether the result is a message that actually targets a user or simply syncs with “what’s relevant” in a statistical sense. So if my cookies show I’m interested in glassware, you’ll go ahead and zap glassware-relevant content to my browser. But what will ensure you’ll sell me on the idea of buying yourChardonnay Value Packnow?

While data-driving is a recent phenomenon, claims for its effectiveness reach cult status in some circles. Results for data-driven ads are compared favorably by its supporters to results for “static ads.” But, as always, my question is, “Which static ads?” After all, the vast majority of static ads are so inadequate that any well-conceived alternative is bound to perform better.

Considering how complex data-driving mechanisms are, it’s easy to see how a confusion of cause and effect got started. But let’s be clear: it’s not data itself that turns the tide, but good campaign strategy delivered affectingly through data-driven means. Your data-driving strategy is of no consequence unless the thinking behind the delivery method actually connects with consumers.

Factvertising? Show me the money.
Obscuring the discussion of data-driven advertising is the term itself. Advertising has always been driven by data—in the form of observations made by creative talent. If the classic “Where’s the Beef?” campaign struck a chord in 1984, it had everything to do with the creative team’s ability to capture a previously observed personality type.

The consumer outrage expressed in the campaign is on display everywhere, no more so now than in the 1980s. But it took a creative imagination to repurpose this observation about human nature to support Wendy’s brand-value claims.

Essentially, the only thing that’s changed in the new paradigm is the source and detail of the data. Added to that, of course is the extra baggage of ideology, the idea that data-driven advertising is inherently better. But, as I see it, if Big Data is to have the predicted impact on consumers, we’ll need less mechanical applications than the “poll and comment” model on display at a microsite near you.

Synonymous with insight? Not so much.
One tenet of data-driven advertising is a commitment to develop creative concepts based on carefully- mined data. While that may make intuitive sense, the crux of the matter is what you mean by “based-on.” Should a data-driven headline contain a direct quote from a focus group attendee, or should the campaign’s creative environment capture the spirit, the atmosphere and emotional climate of the comment?

I vote for the latter. What matters is not what someone says, but the place their statement holds in their inner world. A consumer who says “I love Oreos” has something much more specific in mind than the statement itself suggests. Even the statement, “I love Oreos because they remind me of my childhood,” is only slightly less vague. We need to drill deeper to grasp the implications of that cookie. Was it the crunch, the filling—or the smile on Grandpa’s face as he sneaked you an extra one when Mom wasn’t looking?

How relevant? It’s relative.
Finally, let’s think carefully about the concept of Relevance. No matter how you slice it, relevance can only be defined contextually. So if data-diving tells you that a.) I like science fiction and b.) I’m looking to refinance my mortgage, you should think twice before sending me a message about mortgage rates while I’m trying to enjoy an episode of Battle Star Galactica on Hulu.

I mean, come on, I’m watching the show to relax; I’m not in the mood to think about interest rates or points, not to mention the hassle of fussing with the paperwork. Talking to me about refinancing in that context is like shouting into the wind. It is, in a word, irrelevant.

Ultimately, our current fascination with Big Data must be tempered with humanism, the sensitive, home-grown observations about human nature that creative artists have made for centuries. What motivates people? Look up from the spreadsheet, they’d tell you, and glance into the mirror. What you see there is the answer to every question about what drives people to respond to marketing stimuli.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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