Category: Big Data Marketing

Reality Bites Data

blackswanflockI’ve been thinking about all of the ridiculous upsets in reality, or at least data-driven predictions of reality, in the past three months. From Five Thirty Eight to all the major polls predicting an easy Clinton victory in last year’s election,  all were so wrong that everyone, including the winners, just stared with jaws agape at the broadcast that night. How could this be happening? What about the data?

Prior to that there was the major upset of the World Series, where, against overwhelming data-fueled prediction, the Cubs came from behind and won, heralding in a sign of the End Times as foretold in Revelations (or was it Nostradamus?). Then there was the CFP Bowl in which Clemson didn’t read the script and beat Alabama at the last minute (was that even legal?). Then the Superbowl upset of the upset (also at the last minute, more or less). And the most recent example was the fiasco at the end of the Oscars, in which slam-dunk favorite La La Land lost to Moonlight for Best Picture, even after the former had been mistakenly announced as the winner.

After all these upsets in prediction, it has occurred to me that data don’t know squat. Or we’ve been looking at the wrong data.

What’s going on? How can so many data-fueled models be so off? Aren’t we supposed to be living in a new, enlightened age where every tiny thing can be predicted, every human need anticipated before the human lifeform even knows what it needs?

Apparently not. If you thought that’s where we were going, then you haven’t tried to have a coherent exchange with Siri or Alexa lately. Or tried to get your iDevice to play the song you actually want to listen to instead of what it thinks you’d like to listen to.

I’m sure, too, that all of you have been emptying your email inbox every day of so-called “targeted” junk mail, finely tuned to your most minute desires based on your web-browsing history or your Facebook likes. What? You mean you aren’t worried about your severe-to-moderate irritable bowel syndrome at the moment?  Or that when you look up a title on Amazon or Netflix, they offer up random titles that their algorithms assume are just like what they think you are looking for? (Do you really care that people who watched Sherlock also watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2?)

Everything seems to be not just off, but spectacularly wrong.

Reality Hath Reasons that Data Knoweth Not

Here’s what I think is going on: Reality is biting back. Again. Just at a point in history when we think we have reached the limit of all there is to know in the universe, and Big Data will be the answer to all human needs, everything we thought we knew turns out to be bass ackwards. It reminds me of a similar point of hubris at the end of the 19th century when it was also widely trumpeted by pompous scientists that mankind had just about learned everything that needed to be learned, and everything useful had been invented. Then came Einstein. And the Wright Brothers. And Henry Ford.

Now the age of Big Data is discovering that reality doesn’t give a shit; it has its own agenda.

Chaos theory is rearing its ugly head again. It’s quantum unpredictability (the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle) applied to human behavior, whether that behavior is voting, playing a game, or buying.  Quantum Mechanics come into play in the physical world as the observational scale gets smaller and smaller, down at the sub-atomic level. And as that happens, predictability vanishes.

In the realm of human behavior this Heisenberg analogy applies to individual humans, or to individual human events, like a single game or a single election.  This is the atomic, quantum scale of behavior. On that scale, predictability is mythic.

This getting it all wrong is especially true of data-driven advertising.  Advertising data-specialists can try to convince their clients that they can serve up an ad to the exact person in the precise frame of mind for their product at the perfect moment; when they’re ready to buy. But all of our personal experience is that they get it dead wrong more often than not.

Wait, Wait, Wait. Too Many Variables.

Besides the Quantum Mechanics of individual events,  there’s the sheer number of variables that sabotage predictability. Each game, each election, each competition, each purchase decision, each individual event has so many variables that the degrees of freedom in any statistical model flatten the bell curve, making it worthless as a predictive tool. The extreme outcomes on a distribution function become as likely as the mean.  The black swan event becomes a flock of black swans.

In the last election, those extra variables (like the ineffable frustration felt by the traditionally Democratic white labor voters) were ignored in the more traditional models used. Of course, pollsters will probably incorporate those variables in the next round, but then there will be other variables not taken into account. There always are. People always fight the next war with lessons learned from the last one.

Same with marketing again. At any instant of time, there are so many variables in play with a marketing campaign–the economy, social memes, the weather, external stressors, scandals involving your client, local conditions–that advertisers can’t possibly account for them all. And each one tends to spread out that bell curve, so you might as well take a wild guess as to how to frame your message, or where to put it.

But there’s a way around the fickleness of reality.

Great. So What’s a Marketing Professional to Do?

Well. You can always go back to marketing as an art, relying on the ancient psychological tricks of empathy and creativity to make yourself noticed and loved. These tricks used to work pretty damn well, back before Big Data swallowed up advertising like a swarm of army ants, eating it down to the bone. We’re starting to see these ancient tricks pop up again, like plants poking above the soil after a long drought. Every once in a while you see an entertaining TV spot, or a clever web ad that seeks to entertain as well as sell. Marketers are just starting to rediscover the power of creativity. They not only stand out, they use a key into the human psyche that Big Data never had.

This is Unbreakable Rule #3: Be Creative or Die.  It’s also Rule #6: Give Love to Get Love. Data may allow you to ring the doorbell of the most likely customer for your product, but it won’t help you when the door is opened. For that you need to disarm, to charm, to entertain, to win that customer over and keep them from slamming the door in your face, or clicking “skip”. And for that you need both empathy and creativity.

This is what the winner of the last election did, upsetting all predictions; he empathized with just enough people to get him elected. And he sure entertained the hell out of them. He even entertained those who didn’t vote for him, though they continue to hate him. And the reality of that vote will bite not just pollsters, but all of us.

The other consequence of these flock of black swans we’ve been experiencing has been that people have begun to lose faith in data at all.  We now live in a time where conspiracy theories abound, where people believe what they want to believe. To hell with the data! Or so-called facts and experts. Reality is what each person says it is. The biggest problem facing us now is still a marketing one. It is to persuade people that data and mathematical models, even though discredited by recent events, are still useful.  And purveyors of them, pollsters, marketers, account planners, all need to start marketing their value again to a public that has lost faith in data.




Wasp Traps: Superb Marketing

Yellow Jacket Trap
The Perfect Marketing Campaign

We’re all familiar with those chartreuse-colored wasp traps, right? Especially this time of year as we start thinking about gardening, barbecuing, al fresco dining, outdoor weddings, and Easter egg hunts. There’s nothing can ruin an outside dinner like a bunch of yellow jackets landing all over your food. And they are so pissy! You can’t just wave them away. Everything makes them mad. They come to the table mad. Have you ever had a face full of angry yellow jackets? Try it. It’s fun.

So, if you’re like me, you start hanging wasp traps around the property this time of year. And when you do, you’re doing marketing.

Here’s why: Marketing is, by definition, anything you do to get someone to do something you want them to do, even if they aren’t your species. And wasp traps are the perfect example of that.

Sorry Bees, Wasps Only
In the first place, they are elegantly designed to target only yellow jackets. They use wasp sex pheromones that drive wasps crazy with lust. They don’t hurt bees or other pollinating insects because those guys couldn’t care less; that smell does nothing for them.  It always amazes me, when I empty out the desiccated carcasses of my traps in the fall, that the only insects in there are yellow jackets. It’s like there’s a sign on the entrance that says, “RESERVED FOR VESPIDAE FAMILY PICNIC.” What big-data-driven ad agency wouldn’t love to have that kind of market efficiency?

In the second place, because the only chemical the traps use are natural (and concentrated) wasp sex pheromones, they don’t harm the environment. No ecosystem killing pesticides or genetically altered anything. My hat’s off, though, to the brave people who have to extract those sex pheromones from the yellow jackets (they must have very tiny hands).

Oh sure. They look really cute up close. But don’t be fooled; that adorable face masks a bad attitude.

In the third place, the trap designs take advantage of a peculiarity of the target market (wasps); that they are stupid. Once a wasp climbs into a trap, it just doesn’t have the neural wherewithal to turn around and climb out the way it came. I know a lot of people like this. In a way, the wasp trap follows the same design principle as the typical Las Vegas casino.

And in the fourth, and best, place, this little pheromone broadcaster also lures its target audience with their own vices; lust. I like the moral poetry of that. Prepare one of these things by squeezing in the little phial of sex juice into the cotton in the bottom, and horny insects come from hundreds of feet away, thinking they’re going to get laid. They may even see dozens of the dead carcasses of their compatriots filling the transparent cylinder, but it doesn’t matter; they can’t help themselves. They probably think all those bodies are just having a wasp orgy.  “Let me in there!” they cry, in Yellow Jacketese. It’s like a biblical lesson in the wages of sin. An insect Hooters.

Why is this marketing again?
…you’re undoubtedly asking. As I pointed out already to those of you who forget how you climbed into this post, marketing is any technique you employ to get someone to do something you want them to do. In the case of the wasp trap, the thing you want your customer to do is enter and die. A pretty tall order for a marketing campaign. But the inventors of the traps hit upon an enticement that few arthropods (or humans) can resist, the promise of sex.

And sex still sells. Even to invertebrates.

The Creep Factor

rearwindow1I was having a phone conversation with a friend the other day and we were talking about her experience with Solar City, a big brand solar panel installer. She mentioned that she had once met its founder, Elon Musk, at a dinner she and her husband had attended. I said I didn’t realize he was the founder and I went online to Wikipedia while we were talking to see what his relationship to Solar City was (he was one of the initial angel investors). That’s all. Just an innocent search to inform our conversation. Then we changed the subject and started talking about something else.

Almost immediately, though, I noticed I started getting ads for Solar City popping up on nearly every site I visited. My Facebook wall started featuring Solar City ads. Whenever I went to YouTube to watch an amusing animals-do-the-craziest-things video, there was a Solar City ad either preceding or blocking the lower half of the video. I’m getting e-mail spam from Solar City every day. It’s still going on after a week.

Needless to say, this Big Data Micro-Targeting is creepy as hell.

I know we’re all really cynical now since Edward Snowden blew the lid off the fact that our spy agency, the NSA, is spying. (“I’m shocked! Shocked!”) And that Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Yahoo, AT&T and nearly every other company are tracking our every move. We all know that. But it’s still creepy.

Google, for instance, seems to think it’s so clever that it can instantly start feeding you ads when you happen to search for a subject. It and other search and social networks are so smug that they can precisely serve up “qualified leads” to their advertisers based on your online activity. Advertisers love this because they think that they can get to you almost before your realize you’re in the market to buy their crap.

But what they don’t take into account is how unnerving it seems to us targets. Even if I was thinking about installing solar panels on my roof (which I’m not, Solar City, so back off!), the fact that I would be approached after a single search makes me feel violated. Like someone’s watching me from across the apartment block through a heavy lens.

How would you feel about a first date with someone who, during the course of the getting-to-know-each-other conversation, started revealing intimate details they already knew about you? That’s not attentiveness. It’s stalking. And it’s more likely to lead to a restraining order than a second date.

But these intrusive advertisers actually shoot themselves in the foot with their too-clever data-mining. They also come across like stalkers. And even when we spam them, block them, or simply don’t respond, their algorithms keep harassing us. I have to say that even if I were actually shopping for solar panels, or tires, or patio furniture, if I started getting ads for those things, it would creep me out so much that I would go out of my way to avoid buying from those advertisers.

It’s the same feeling as going into a store, browsing through the merchandise, and having a salesman follow you around inquiring if they can help you find something. That’s not helpful. It makes you want to punch them in the throat.

The Wrong Assumption

Then there’s the wrong assumption that we’re predictable cattle. It’s like they actually think we’d be flattered that they know what we want even before we do. Or like being married to someone who finishes your sentences for you…wrongly.

I find it so insulting, for instance, when Amazon tells me that other people who bought what I bought (to my embarrassment) also bought some other embarrassing title.  I could give a shit about what other people bought. It rubs it in my face that they think I’m a predictable cow,  just part of a banal, passive herd. Everybody likes to live in the illusion that each of us is unique. And for some marketer to contemptuously remind us that we’re not demeans us; it reduces us to a type and trivializes our illusion of free will and specialness.

Not only that, it reminds me that I’m not too proud of my tastes. It associates me with people I’d rather not spend any time with. I see that people who bought the boxed set of all three Lord of the Rings movies also bought The Hunger Games and X-Men. And I go, eeeeyew. I’m not one of them!

That’s Anti-Marketing

Amazon’s not the only presumptuous one. Apple’s iTunes also assumes, because it paws through my personal playlists, that it knows what kind of music I like and offers me the arrogantly named iTunes Genius service. See, they’re the “Genius” because they have a bot that already knows what I like. Which is always dead wrong. (Apple loves naming their various services “Genius”, have you noticed? They either really think highly of themselves or they don’t know what the definition of “genius” is.)

Then there’s the inability of Big Data to glean real human motivations from past purchase behavior. Years ago, when my daughter was making a quilt, I bought her a how-to-quilt book on Amazon. Ever since then, whenever I go to Amazon, they seem to assume that I’m still a big quilter and are always suggesting other quilting books (even the same title I already bought). Of course, they don’t care. It’s just an algorithm based on previous search or purchase history and what other people who bought that book also bought. No actual humans have to be involved. It costs them nothing. Except a creepy feeling every time I go to Amazon.

I think we’ve become way too enamored with Big Data and Micro-Targeting. Our recent ability to get in somebody’s face has, as marketers, caused us to lose sight of the Bigger Data of human reaction. People don’t like being spied on. They don’t like being sold to. And they especially don’t like being made to feel like they are nothing more than insignificant, predictable data nuggets.

Instead of the reaction these Big Data marketers think they are getting, which is “Hey! How did you know I was shopping for that? How convenient!” what they are actually getting is “Hey! How did you know I was shopping for that? I’m calling the cops!”

Solar City