I’ve heard and read quite a bit lately about how data can fix everything in the enterprise. Big Data, small data, data lakes… data will make everything better. I read very recently how data replaces the “shoddiness of intuition”, how data can help to redefine your marketing to be science, rather than art.

Except that none of that is true. Data can make things better to a degree, but data cannot completely replace intuition, nor can it transform anything that relates to human beings to pure science. There are two core reasons why.

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First, your data – especially around marketing – must be clean and correct in order for it to be usable. Bad data is actually worse than no data, because no data means you know you’re guessing. Bad data creates a false sense of confidence. Imagine basing digital strategy around your web analytics, only to find that the tracking code is missing from half the pages on your site.

Second, data is largely backwards looking. This is simple fact; I cannot get a copy of tomorrow’s data. I can at best get machines to uses sophisticated algorithms to forecast and guess at data, but that’s still guesswork and not objective fact. A machine would not have correctly forecasted, for example, the stock market crash of October 24, 1929.

Third, data is meaningless by itself. Your ability to interpret it, to analyze it, is what makes it valuable. Having data is like owning cookbooks. If you’re hungry, it can help, but only if you know what to do with it.

So what can data do for you? More than anything else, data can help provide guard rails. It can help to confirm or deny your intuition, give you a sense of where the correct answer might live. If you’re faced with a strategic choice in your marketing, data can suggest which choice might be the better choice based on past performance or other people’s experiences. Data can tell you when you’ve reached certain milestones (or are about to) or alert you that a course correction is needed.

Above all else, recognize that data is only one tool in your toolkit. It’s only as good as your capabilities, so if your intuition or experience is the best tool for a given situation, use the best tool for the job.


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