How To Build Your Career In A Data-Driven Marketing World

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Change is uncomfortable and unpredictable. And it is unavoidable in a data-driven marketing world.

I don’t have to tell you how radically marketing has changed in the last decade. Heck, the iPhone came out only about a decade ago. Facebook had just under 50 million users in September of 2007; it now has 2 billion monthly users.

Now voice search is on the rise. Artificial intelligence is running more and more systems. Dominos is using automated cars to deliver pizzas.

There’s been a lot of change in the business world in the last decade. And the next decade promises to make the last decade look stagnant.

For marketers, the most visible effects of change are probably in data and technology.

If you don’t think of yourself as being  a “numbers person” – all this talk of Big Data, being data-driven, even “data storytelling,” might make you a little queasy.

Is there any way to surf the data tidal wave? Will marketers still be useful in a data-driven marketing department … or will we shift into being data analysts or data project managers?

And, how can you personally be secure in all this change? Can you get new skills, and, if so, which ones?

They’re all excellent questions. All answerable questions. And the answers become more evident as soon as you get some perspective.

Data-driven marketing is your friend.

If all you’ve ever seen of data is analytics reports, you’re missing out. Data analysis can be a weird and wonderful thing. An art form, even.

Doubt that? Then you need to read the book, “Dear Data” by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec. It’s a whimsical, brainy correspondence of 52 weeks of postcards sent by two unapologetic (and extremely creative) data freaks. You’ll never see a marketing report the same way again.

Don’t want to read the book? Then watch the TED Talk.

Digital marketing is a continuing-education job.

I hate to be blunt, but if you don’t like learning new things, digital (and therefore data-driven) marketing isn’t a good fit for you.

The upside here is that if you do like learning new things, and you love technology, and psychology, and get excited about the next new marketing trends, you’ll never get bored with digital marketing.

Just when you think you’ve got it tied down, the next potential Facebook appears on the horizon.

Sharpen your storytelling skills.

Statistics and charts might be enticing for some of us, but for others they’re as good as sleeping pills.

Most speakers (and writers) know that, while it’s smart to use statistics and charts to back up what you say, if you use too many, your audience goes numb.

There’s a fine art to balancing data and storytelling, which is why there’s a whole field of work called “data storytelling.”

This is a skill that marketers would do well to study. It’s great to have the data, after all, but if we can’t attract and hold peoples’ attention (namely, the C-suite’s attention), we aren’t going to get what we want.

So we need some storytelling skills. Some data presentation skills. And some persuasion skills.

Fortunately, all of that can be learned. You might not even need to get a degree.

Here are a few resources:

Question your data.

Ever heard the saying, “Garbage in, garbage out”? It applies to data – in spades.

The most consequential example of accepting bad data without questioning it (or even realizing it’s bad, until after the fact) is the 2016 election. Regardless of your opinion of the outcome, in the run-up, the presumed results seemed clear. Most people thought Clinton would win. Only a couple of the pollsters and data crunchers, most notably (another place to get some data inspiration and see some great data journalism) gave Trump a fighting chance.

Wherever the problem was – with “shy” voters, with survey samples, with skewed assumptions – the result was an earthquake for the “data will save us” view that many smart people had held. Most of the data wonks were wrong.

Data is only as good as its inputs, after all. Mucky inputs produce mucky data. And if you don’t know you’ve got muck, you can end up making mucky decisions, and even, possibly, going out of business ‒ all while you practice near perfect data-driven marketing.

Want another way to look at this? The data is actually dumb. The inputs, the algorithms, and the reports only know what we give them. They only do what we tell them to do.

It’s up to us humans to really question how they work. That’s a super-important job.

Stay human.

All this technology and data is great, but it holds a risk – especially if you’re lazy.

Here’s an extreme, but memorable example of this:

My father spent his career in military intelligence. On the day 9/11 happened, his one comment about those events was: “That’s what happens when you take people off the ground.” I watched a 4-star general on television say exactly the same thing later that night.

My apologies for the chilling example, but we marketers are in some ways making the same mistake. We’re “taking our people off the ground,” in that we’re relying on technology to tell us what we need to know about our customers.

In short, we get so focused on the data that we forget about the actual people the data is supposed to represent.

Fortunately, there are ways around this:

  • Become best friends with your peers in Sales and Customer Service. Now that we’re all in this “customer experience” thing together, we need to work together. Seamlessly.
  • Go to events. It’s interesting that event marketing is one of the most effective forms of content marketing, or marketing in general. It’s also one of the few ways we data-driven marketers get to shake off the analytics dashboards and the customer journey models and actually talk to real people about their needs.
  • It’s fairly easy to set up a listening station. You can even automate most of it. Just listen with an open mind. We humans are dangerously good at dismissing data that doesn’t fit our worldview.

Our biggest competitive advantage as humans is…

… our ability to ask questions.

The single best question to ask is: “What does it mean?”

Actually, you could probably keep your job just by asking “What does it mean?” every time someone puts a report on your desk or mentions a statistic or pushes any type of data at you.

If you’re really going to excel at data-driven marketing, “What does it mean?” is the fundamental question to ask of every piece of data. Machines may be able to crunch numbers better than we humans can, but this one question usually stumps them.

It will probably stump them for a long time to come.

So make data your servant, not your master. It’s us humans who give it meaning. And the meaning, ultimately, is the only thing that really matters about data.

In many ways, all this data may be pushing us to simply get better at asking questions. The data can give answers, but it’s still only humans who come up with the type of questions that can change a business.

Back to you.

Are you worried about how “big data” and artificial intelligence are becoming more prevalent in marketing? Do you feel like being a data-driven marketer is a privilege – or a curse?

Leave a comment and tell us what you think.

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