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Crunching the numbers


Can data make us blind to insight?


Nadine Faure

Shopper Marketing Consultant

Head of Geometry Intelligence Paris

Geometry Global Paris




As powerful as it is, data creates two illusions: that we have control, and that we have a global view of a situation. But it's a little more complicated than that.


Numbers in marketing can be highly seductive. In an increasingly complex world, we all need to see clearly to be able to see further. Brands need to understand why customers are buying, and how they make decisions. In the digital age, as we all leave a data trail of our actions, it is relatively easy to collect and share data. However, the two illusions that these figures can create are often the source of many mistakes, and can potentially become a real trap.


The classical sociodemographic segmentations (sex, age, location, etc.) have had their time. Even the most complex profiles of internet users tend to associate every purchase with a single identity. An individual buying a plane ticket for a business trip is the same person that buys flights for a family holiday, but the triggers, motivations and context are all very different.


When internet use began to take off, brands quickly understood the potential of digital. Their first reflex often was to transfer a portion of their TV budgets over, and to measure their impact, they created a range of indicators and dashboards. These range from the simple « click » rate to conversion rates on a website; what they have in common is they provide reassuring numbers, and digital data can be very rich. But it is easy to forget one important point: this data offers very little information on what motivates a purchase. It doesn’t explain the « why ».


False comfort


The problem is not the data itself but the way that brands make use of it. Few brands use it to inform their strategic thinking. Many use it to reassure themselves about what they are already doing; to provide comfort. But there is a recurrent theme regarding the use of raw digital data: there is so much of it, that it’s possible to use data to « prove » and demonstrate everything – and its opposite. How, then, can data be trusted?


It is clear that data sitting on a digital dashboard is not enough to build a marketing strategy. Digital performance requires precision reading. What message for which targets at what time? It also requires new levels of reactivity – the ability to adjust a campaign according to its performance in real time. This is a completely different way of using data than for traditional media. Yet for traditional media, measurement has long been conducted by independent research organizations. In the digital world, however, there is still an unfortunate lack of maturity and transparency. Think of Facebook’s recent « mea culpa » over errors in its performance measurement. For other platforms, measurement systems are yet to be invented.


Digital measurement can guide brands as they optimize a live campaign, but when it comes to building an overall strategy, the challenge lies in making intelligent use of all the data available. Data should guide a brand, but not be seen as a panacea, or used to post-rationalize decisions that have already been made.


Context is key


So where does this leave one of the most important elements of the buying experience for consumers: its context? Why does the customer buy? What was their motivation? What are the key moments in their decision-making process that led them to this particular purchase today? Did they change their mind? Why?


There is no quick fix to help us understand these routes to purchase, but there are methods. Within a company, diverse teams must synthesize their knowledge and build a picture of the consumer journey together. This allows us to identify new short- and long-term opportunities for a brand. This teamwork is a first step towards giving meaning to the numbers. To go further, qual-quant studies and mixed methodologies allow us to better understand all the stages of the decision-making process.


Data collection is essential to help us understand how individuals make decisions, but we should not be content to stop there. The data gathered helps us to identify the different stages that constitute a decision-making process, but we lack the landscapes, the weather, the emotions, the experiences and the duration of the journey – all these complementary factors that nourish the context and help us understand what ultimately influenced our buyer in one direction rather than another. It is the richness of this context that ultimately inspires the decision to buy. It is now essential to understand the context of behavior – not just to measure that behavior – for marketing strategy to be a true success.