It's where conversations start and end in marketing meetings. It's the who, what, when, where, and how of every digital content strategy worth its salt. It's the first thing we consult when things go wrong, and the thing we praise when things go right.

You know what I'm talking about. Data.

Sometimes, it seems data holds the answers to all of our marketing questions. But marketers will do well to remember one thing: data is only as good as the questions it answers and the meaning we assign to it.

Why "data-driven" approaches can be deceptive.

On its own, data holds no value. It has no inherent meaning. For example, just because you know you're running a temperature of 100 degrees doesn't mean you know why you have a fever or how to treat it. In the same way, just because you know clicks have gone through the roof doesn't mean you have any idea why or what to do about it. Without meaning, data is useless.

Skyrocketing clicks, for example, may mean you're doing something right, but it could also mean you're doing something wrong. Consumers might be click-happy because they're crazy about your content, but they could also be digitally rubber-necking a PR crash your brand has been involved in. Meaning makes all the difference.

How data-driven approaches get it backward.

When data is the primary driver and creative is secondary, there's a high risk that marketers will get it backward. Instead of drilling down into the data to determine what their audience cares about and what's motivating consumer behavior, data-driven marketers can become obsessed with numbers for numbers' sake.  

Data-driven marketers tend to fixate on manipulating metrics without really understanding the meaning behind them. This prevents them from exploring why consumers are doing what they're doing and locks them into a paint-by-numbers, check-the-boxes approach that lacks agility and insight into consumer behavior and creative strategy.

Data of itself isn't all the interesting.

On its own, data isn't worth much to consumers. Even data anomalies (the holy grail of marketing research) are only interesting because they raise the question, "What does this mean?" Data doesn't win the hearts and minds of consumers, and contrary to the term "data-driven," it doesn't drive compelling campaigns. What data does -- especially when it's anomalous -- is signal to marketers there are valuable new discoveries to be made and insights to be gained.

But here's the deal: those valuable discoveries and insights aren't found in data but in how marketers assign meaning to data and then translate it into a story that emotionally moves and motivates an audience.

Unlocking the power of data depends on marketers who are fluent in two languages.

Marketers with a nose for the relationship between data and execution are exceptionally valuable. These kinds of people are bilingual in the sense they're fluent in the metrics or data side of the business as well as the creative mindset or meaning side of the business.

This allows them to identify and communicate strategic insights based on the valuable meaning they have mined and messaging they have crafted from metrics. The savviest, most successful businesses put a premium on the seamless integration of data and creative to unlock the power of each.  

Data-driven approaches can get in the way of innovation.

Data-addicted marketers can be terrified to loosen their grip on data because it gives them the illusion of insight, control, and safety. Numbers may not lie, but they don't speak for themselves. They require interpretation, and they don't tell the truth about disruptive innovation. After all, something that's truly innovative is unprecedented, which means it doesn't even exist to measure, at least until after the fact.

Disruptive innovation rests on the ability to defy existing data and dispense with the illusory safety net of data-driven certainty. It's not data that drives disruptive innovation but creative risk. Think about it. Every significant discovery or innovation of the last five centuries required creative risk to defy the limits of data available at the time.

  • Galileo defied data that said the earth was the center of the universe.

  • The Wright Brothers defied data that said mechanical flight was impossible.

  • Kathrine Switzer defied data that said women were incapable of completing a marathon.

  • Steve Jobs defied data that said consumers weren't interested in handheld computers that also functioned as phones and music players.

  • Krystel Huxlin Ph.D. just this year defied data that said people blinded by a stroke can't recover their vision.

  • Bill Bernbach, the most innovative ad man of his time and the creative mastermind behind Volkswagen's groundbreaking "Lemon" ad, defied data that said post-war American consumers would never buy a German-made car.

To propel rather than impede innovation, data needs to be just one part of an iterative creative process that is more dedicated to experimentation and testing than to certainty and safety. Data itself needs to be continually calibrated by experiments of creative risk.

The meaning behind metrics.

As marketers, we need a different disposition toward data and a new mindset for metrics. Data, big or otherwise, doesn't have all the answers. Though it's critical in informing storytelling and strategy, it can't take the place of creative. Killer campaigns harness the meaning behind the metrics to engage their audience. Since disruptive innovation is driven not by data but by creative risk, marketers might be better served by shifting their focus from data-driven approaches to "creative-centric" ones.