The dangers of lazy data analysis

A well-known consumer marketer emailed what they thought was an irresistible offer. Using my address, they deduced that I must be a St. Louis Cardinals fan and presented me with a great deal on some Cards memorabilia. Bad move.

My lifelong allegiance lies with a team that plays at the intersection of Clark and Addison in my hometown of Chicago. And few things trigger a Cubs fan’s fury as much as the sight of a particular red bird.

On the surface, using geographic locations to customize offers to local loyalties was sound. But baseball fans tend to be rabidly devoted to their favorite teams and scornful of the rest. I now live in a metropolitan area in which baseball fandom is generally divided between three National League teams, all having century-old rivalries with the others. Assuming the company used only zip codes to inform its selections, they had a two-in-three chance of infuriating the recipient and blowing a potential sale. We’ll give them an A for effort, but an F for execution.

Marketers have an astounding amount of data available to them these days — more than any would have dreamed possible just a decade ago. Consumers who once tended to be suspicious about disclosing their phone numbers now freely turn over many of the most intimate details of their lives. That’s how folks like Amazon appear to magically stay a step ahead of you when you shop online.

All too often, though, those companies do a poor job of using that data. Some are like the chain of office stores that pays attention to everything I buy, and then suggests the identical item on my next visit to their website. I buy a black tape dispenser and two weeks later, their website suggests a black tape dispenser as something I need. If there’s logic there, it escapes me.

More often, the companies try to use all that data without giving any thought to the people behind it. I’m sure that’s what happened in the example I cited. I’d wager that a recent marketing grad who knew nothing about baseball or fan attitudes was given products to push and simply assumed that one team was as good as any other. I’ve had other merchants assume that since I like to fish (I do), I must also be an avid hunter (I’m not). Or take the fact that I like to hike (yep) and parlay that into an assumption that I’m also a runner (only if I’m being chased).

Data can tell you a lot about your customers and prospects, but it doesn’t tell you everything. You can use it as a starting point, but if you really want to make effective connections, you have to think beyond the data to what’s been called people’s social identities.

Increasingly, we’re defined by the groups of people who share our interests. We may be Evangelical Christians, Democrats, golfers, quilters, or Cubs fans. Most of us are combinations of several social identities, and we spend much of our life in the orbits of people who share some of our identities. If I told you that someone was a Republican Evangelical golfer, you’d make different judgments about them than if they were a Democratic Catholic quilter.

The more social identities people share, the more likely they’ll exhibit similar behaviors. Many decisions about purchases and politics are driven largely by social connections.

The key is to go beyond raw data and look for signs of shared interests. One way to do that is to aggregate data from multiple sources and look for matches. Another is to stop lumping prospects into large groups like “suburban mothers,” and instead thinking in terms of smaller social groups like “Evangelical 30-something mothers who are regular joggers.” Not only will those tighter groupings help companies pinpoint marketing efforts, they’ll allow for the development of messages that are more targeted and meaningful to people sharing specific social identities.

Why do marketing efforts using data fall short so often? I suspect that it’s because the business world is increasingly dominated by specialists. Companies hire employees with narrowly focused degrees in business marketing or data science. They gain deep knowledge in those fields but lack the broader understanding of the interplay of people and society that typically comes with a liberal arts education. They access the data but aren’t curious enough to explore the story behind it. That’s when a Cubs fan discovers images of Cards swag in his inbox.