Where’s the Humanity in Data-Driven Marketing?

Some say marketing is as old as civilization itself.

Others, that it is a relatively new discipline, born out of the Industrial Revolution. Whatever your take on the history of marketing, it is clear that the technological advances of the past 15 years have changed marketing dramatically.

Whichever way you look at it, marketing is a human endeavor. At its simplest, marketing is finding audiences who are in the market to buy the products or services your company produces and persuading them to buy (and continue to buy) your brand.

However, as we marketers know, it’s not that simple because we are dealing with humans who can be unpredictable, emotional and fickly beings, influenced by many forces including culture, society, technology, and economics. To be a great marketer we need to be part social scientist, cultural anthropologist, researcher, and mind reader, constantly reading between the lines to uncover the insights that will drive creative solutions to the ever increasing complexity of the buying process.

And while, in this “Age of Data”, we have an abundance of facts and figures at our fingertips, many of us are beginning to question whether or not the seemingly singular focus of organizations and corporations to be “data driven” diminishes the importance of critical and creative thinking skills marketers need to interpret the numbers, read between the lines and connect the dots in a non-linear (creative) fashion.

Are We Too Data Centric?

No-one is going to deny that data is an invaluable resource that helps us do our jobs. And, as marketers, we certainly know the benefits of data being able to help us demonstrate our ability to deliver revenue. And while I don’t think any of us want to go back to the days of John Wanamaker, when he famously said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, I’m just not sure which half,” I know we are beginning to ask, “Has the enthusiasm to be “data driven” swung too far?” Is being “data-driven” leading us to value numbers above people on both sides of the selling and buying process?

Recalibrating Toward a More Balanced Approach.

In monitoring the press, listening to my clients, and participating in discussions on the state of marketing I have noticed an emerging trend that resonates strongly with those of us who have been in the marketing profession for most of our careers. It speaks to recalibrating the “data-driven” pendulum to reflect a more balanced approach. An approach that recognizes human centric processes, skill sets, emotionally driven connections and that most human of human traits — unpredictability.

Steve Jobs, in a 2011 New Yorker article, said it first and best, “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

While the recalibrating debate started within Silicon Valley, among the very technologists who “invented” big data, the conversation has spread to broader discussions. These discussions include everything from what skill sets Marketers and Product Managers need to have to be able to understand the customer, to the realization that there is a science and an art to both product development and marketing. And most recently, there have been several thought provoking articles in the mainstream press, demonstrating how a Liberal Arts background can be of benefit in a data driven world.

Liberal Arts Skills Making a Come Back.

It appears we are finally recognizing that we need to balance our data driven strategies with more human centric skills and processes. Why? The Liberal Arts tend to focus on the non-linear skills of critical and creative thinking. It teaches us how to look beyond the obvious, be open to new ideas, and ways of doing things. And in my opinion, in the game to uncover customer insights we must nurture critical and creative thinking. We need to admit there is a science and an art to uncovering insights that can get lost in our data centric world.

While data is an invaluable tool for road mapping and mining patterns and from it we learn to be more efficient, effective and successful, in the end, uncovering the customer insights that drive engagement and loyalty strategies, requires a human approach. An approach based on the principles embedded in The Liberal Arts. Data doesn’t uncover customer insights, humans do. And The Liberal Arts, teaches us that the act of creative thinking is more like embarking on a treasure hunt with the map showing cardinal directions and only a north star — the goal.

As we learn from designers, musicians, theatre directors, artists and entrepreneurs, along with a new generation of neuro-psychologists, creative thinking is a whole brain activity, crossing both hemispheres. It is nonlinear and relies on us being able to connect he dots across seemingly disparate ideas and capitalize on pattern recognition (for more on this subject read: Scott Barry Kaufman’s, The Real Neuroscience of Creativity, Scientific American, August 19, 2013 blog). This nonlinear thinking also allows us to read between the lines, a critical skill to uncover the insights necessary to build an experience that is empathetic to, and can predict, our customers’ wants and needs.

In this scenario, marketers are “judged” less on their technical analytical skills (we have Analysts who are far more skilled) and more on the skills that allow them to interpret the data, uncover the insights, and connect with people (customers) on an emotional level.

The Evolution to Human Centric Processes and Marketing.

Much like Apple and IDEO led the way in human centric technology and industrial design, when they recognized we need to treat humans as whole beings – appealing to head, heart and spirit, Philip Kotler, in “Marketing 3.0”, states that, “Human-centric marketing represents a broader evolution in marketing and embodies many cultural, societal, economic, and technological changes that have occurred over the last decade.” And goes on to suggest that the deep and enduring changes of our age are not technological but social and cultural—indeed, human.

Additionally, we now see the emergence of processes that combine the data-centric (observation and automation) with the human-centric (inspiration and engagement). A recent HBR article “The New Science of Customer Emotions” highlights new research born out of the frustration companies have trying to consistently define emotional motivators, connect with them, and link them to results (download the HBR article here). And, our very language around the issues of skill sets is being reexamined. As Megan Kierstead eloquently states, “The very language of “hard” vs. “soft” inherently privileges one over the other and, perhaps most damagingly, suggests that this is somehow a    zero-sum game where one must come at the expense of the other.”

Human Centric Marketing Returns with Help from Technology….

Frankly, we never thought Human Centric Marketing went away! Without the mechanisms and a commitment to generating insights with a trust based, social science mindset, we marketers would never be able to consistently behave the way we need to behave to contribute all we can to driving loyalty. However, data-driven marketing did take center stage and over-shadowed the real work of marketing professionals. So we are in full support of anything that helps re-calibrate the balance.

For example, the simple step of calling your customers what they really are, people who buy your products or services, instantly changes the relationship. It helps everyone in the company, overcome their tendency to think of them in the abstract, or as statistics, and visualize them as human beings they want to influence and impress. People with whom they want to develop a long term relationship. In other words, the relationship moves from being data centric to human centric and everyone automatically becomes invested in creating a great relationship.

This simple change to a human centric perspective shifts company dynamics in problem solving from pure analytic assessment to one balanced by research and understanding of emotional attachment and engagement — a method born out in the latest neuro-marketing research.

Ultimately, uncovering customer insights requires a human approach. We learn from the data, we listen, we interact, we respect the experience of our customers, we engage our whole brains to read between the lines and connect the dots, and use the principles of the social sciences to “predict” the emotional motivators that will drive our customers to fully connect with our brands.

We recognize this is not an easy thing to accomplish, especially with the daily pressures of delivering revenue. However, it is easier (and less costly) to commit to delivering an exceptional human experience than to correct the opposite. You only have to look at the woes of the American airline business to know that you would rather be Virgin America than any of the other brands in that category.

Download the HBR article: The New Science of Customer Emotions, here.


About The Author:

Connie is passionate about customer relationship strategy and truly understands consumer behavior.  An executive level advisor for some of the world’s most prestigious brands, Connie has a track record of delivering game changing customer strategy alongside significant bottom line results. Through the years, companies such as GE Capital, Intuit Software and Costco Wholesale have sought Connie’s expertise.  Connie is President and Founder of VeraCentra, a Customer Relationship Agency.


VeraCentra’s Closed Loop Solution is an integrated approach that brings together relationship strategy and data scientist teams to overcome technology and data challenges to help yield actionable customer insights.  And our Journey design services coupled with our digital platform integration team work in parallel to advance action, creating and automating customer messages.  Our Closed Loop Solution is fully integrated, allowing you to realize a quick return on your customer relationship marketing investment.