You might have heard the phrase "the plural of anecdote isn’t data". As marketers, people who try to analyse and predict the behaviours of large groups of people, we should take note. Anecdotes aren’t data. They’re much better than that.
As computing power has grown, so too has our desire to reduce the actions of people – economics, politics – to numbers. To reduce them to a language our computers understand, rather than one we do. These algorithms, believing human society to be a predictable machine rather than a chaotic chain of events, triggered the 2008 financial crash. They also decreed it impossible for the Conservatives to win a majority at the last election, and failed not only to predict the victories of Donald Tump and the Brexit campaign, but also ensuing consequences should such ‘black swan’ moments occur.
So… this approach doesn’t seem to have a great track record. However, despite these humbling moments, the promise of "big data" still seduces many sophisticated political and economic thinkers. The journalist James Forsyth recently observed that the beauty of polls for professional politicians is that they give the illusion that you don’t need to "know the country" to do your job. If you want to find out what "C2s in Walsall" think about something, there’s no need to call your aunt there, or go to speak to the people on the streets – the numbers have already done the analysis for you.
Remind you of anyone?
Marketers play exactly the same game. We want to provoke certain behaviours in the public, and try to follow the same "scientific" paths to achieve our goal. There will never be a shortage of brands seeking an algorithmic holy grail to shift their product at the flick of a switch, and there will never be a shortage of agencies trying to sell them just that.
But we who work in the experiential / event / real world space have an advantage – an advantage arising from what many see as our biggest weakness.
Our work has always been seen as extremely difficult to measure, if not impossible. What we do, out there in the wild, interacting with normal people, is just too messy to be shoved into a formula. However, as politics has taught us in recent times, that which is messy is also that which is real. The truth is that the Conservative, Brexit and Trump triumphs were all eminently predictable – and indeed were predicted – by people all over the country except those who chose to view the reality through their computer screens, rather than with their own eyes.
By interacting with people directly, by talking to them, listening to them, and serving them, the event strand of a brand’s marketing efforts should be seen not as the old-fashioned "rump" of what they do, but the avant-garde. It is here that lessons should be learned, decisions should be made, and ultimately where true fans are really formed.
Iconic brands like Monster, Lego, GoPro, and Lush aren’t the most advanced at manipulating data. They’re the ones who have the most real relationships with their customers. They’re the ones who are visiting their aunt in Walsall whilst their competition looks at a slide deck that says she likes to read The Sun, or is 70% likely to be on Facebook.
We have the most important piece of the marketing puzzle at our fingertips every day, and we barely even realise it. But for those of us who do, we become the insurgents. We become the ones who create the shocks, break the rules, upset the status quo. It might not be the "smart" way to do modern marketing, but it is the "wise" way – and that’s what wins in the long run.
Alex Smith is planning director at real world marketing agency Sense.
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