What Data Doesn’t Tell Us

michael-lowensternData-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Michael Lowenstern, vice president of digital advertising at R/GA.

Everywhere we go, we leave data in our exhaust. Our connected devices leave our footprints behind, like so much digital detritus, which gets dumpster-dived by marketers like me in the hopes of offering consumers something more compelling to see, read, click and buy.

Unsurprisingly, the amount of data we generate online is staggering. We search, click, dwell, like, bounce, swipe, share and view. Data management platforms (DMPs) abound, aggregating this data and using it to predict our likeliness to buy a car, an engagement ring or a continuing education degree. It is not an exaggeration to say we’re nearing an age where machine learning will allow advertisers to know when consumers are about to buy something before the thought has fully formed itself in their minds.

For fun, let’s skip ahead to about 2018, when ad tech companies have more or less perfected AI-vertising. They can now selectively target you for a smartphone ad because you have a 92% propensity to purchase a smartphone a week from Thursday. They will wait until 8:30 a.m. to surface the ad to you on Instagram because you scroll through your feed 85% of the time during that hour. Why Instagram and not Twitter? Because people who use Instagram overindex (58%) on having smartphones that are under a year old.

So, here’s your ad: It’s a picture of a smartphone with a high-resolution camera, along with an offer.

Bingo. Slamdunkvertising!

Now, will that really work? Are we really that Pavlovian? No, I don’t think so.

This type of marketing that we are racing toward has a fundamental flaw because the ad will never have anything memorable to say to you because it’s 100% data and 0% idea. And data alone misses crucial factors: human agency, free will, spontaneity and the randomness of our lives. It assumes we live predictably.

Spontaneity is what makes us feel alive. Randomness is what makes life interesting. Free will is what makes us feel empowered. And that is when and where we feel most creative as human beings.

Data alone is powerless to take any of this into account. But fortunately, the creative use of this data is where marketers have the most opportunity to enter people’s lives. How can marketers take the best that data can offer and use it to power an interesting interaction with a prospective customer?

Let’s spitball that for a second. Say we’re marketing a new beer (why not?) and the data shows:

  • People order their preferred beer brand for their first two glasses, but then they’re 45% more likely to try something different for their third.
  • People create 38% more Snapchat stories when they’re at a bar.
  • 85% of bar TVs have the volume turned off.
  • 90% of men don’t look at their phone while peeing, which incidentally happens an average of 10 minutes after the second beer is consumed.

This is data a creative team can make soup from. We’ve got our consumption behavior, digital behavior, contextual behavior and peeing behavior. With it, we might craft a campaign strategy called “The Third Beer.”

We’d use Snapchat stories to make three-part narratives. We’d create three-part ads between shows (with subtitles because of those muted TVs). If it were still the Olympics, we’d celebrate the athlete who came in third using real-time, dynamic video. And I personally would advocate putting an ad on the third bathroom stall. Yes, I’m serious.

This is an ad campaign that is powered by data, but that is not encumbered by it. This uses data in a way that celebrates spontaneity. It feels uniquely human, not robotic or corporate. And it’s scalable way beyond a bar because it’s based on a repeatable truth.

So, yes, we need data to provide context for media placements, making responsible use of marketing dollars. And the ability to harness AI is crucial for us to make sense of the quintillions of bits of data we each generate. But creative, human interpretation of what AI spits out is what makes the data, well, human. It’s that creative interpretation that makes our communication memorable. Period.

(By the way, you can steal my beer idea if you like it. The data shows you probably won’t be able to sell it until 2019.)

Follow R/GA (@RGA) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger).

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