Colonel Math…on the Internet…with analytics!

Is too much math killing marketing?

In Clue, the classic board game, players strategically deduce which suspect has murdered Mr. Boddy, the game’s perpetual victim, with which weapon, in which room. Invariably, the deadly culprit seems to be the kerfuffled old Colonel Mustard. In the game of marketing, Colonel Math, it seems, has been lurking about with murderous intent, as marketers have started to question whether an intense focus on quantitative analysis is, in fact, killing the essence of marketing.

At this year’s SXSW Interactive conference, I attended one such session, titled aptly enough, “Is Too Much Math Killing Marketing?” The March issue of Advertising Age addressed the same in “Our Biggest Brands Can No Longer Be Managed By Nerds,” in which Tom Hinkes, principal consultant at OutBranding, writes that something is “desperately wrong with consumer brand marketing.” Marketing creativity and consumer-empathy is being crushed as marketers the world over wrangle obsessively with scientific analysis and spreadsheets.

Internet marketing, in particular, has transformed marketing into its myopically-focused incarnation of rigorous testing and algorithmic analytics. Too many companies are on a single-minded quest to soak up data and process metrics that reveal consumer insight based on patterns of clicks. Google, for example, proudly proclaims that it “[lets] the math and the data govern how things look and feel.” Granted, quantitive analysis enables the Internet giant to reap mammoth profits from its advertisement rankings. However, the interactive and intuitive quality of marketing seems to wither in this numerical world.

The challenge is not about hating math or diminishing the role that numerical analysis can play in understanding consumer needs. This is especially true on the web where the dynamics of personal contact are very different from the Golden Age of Advertising half a century ago. The challenge lies in using math successfully. Andreas Weigand, ex-Chief Scientist at Amazon, has stated, for example, that Amazon never starts with the data. Rather, it starts with a marketing problem and then figures out what data Amazon needs to analyze the situation.

Eric Peterson, noted author in the field of analytics and performance, derived his formula (highlighted in the above graphic) to capture the complexity of consumer interaction on the Internet. But even he admits that “the use of simple measures like ‘bounce rate,’ ‘conversion rate’ and ‘average time spent’ is simply insufficient.” Web analytics are used solely to provide “an edge and help identify truly-qualified opportunities.” Advertising Age captures this sentiment:

Brand marketing is not a science. It requires analysis, discipline and detail. Even more, it requires intuition, flair and vision. Great marketers are visionaries, not bean counters. They succeed by defying conventional wisdom. They see over the near horizon, envisioning products and ideas long before the average consumer even senses a need for them. Nothing captures this principle better than the adage, “If Edison had done market research, he would have invented bigger candles.”

Is there a way to save marketing from Colonel Math? Yes, approaching the marketing challenge with a balanced understanding that consumers are intelligent yet unpredictable rather than simple numeric widgets on a scientific game board is a start. Relying solely on data to reveal a consumer pattern is the kerfuffled way out. Great marketing requires quantitative analysis and qualitative intuition. As long as marketers keep this balance, marketing is safe from the perils of Colonel Math.

Neena Needel is founder and Principal of Point2Point Group (www.point2pointgroup.com). If you would like to continue the conversation, post a comment or send a message to neena@point2pointgroup.com.

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about neena gupta needel

In marketing, a brand touchpoint refers to every opportunity a company has to impress its brand upon its consumers. I hope my thoughts on these pages will help to connect my ideas with others who share a passion for marketing and communication.

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