Data. And Research. And Fried Chicken.

When it comes down to it, marketing strategists have only three tools at their disposal: data, research and their own opinions.  Make that two things; opinions don’t count because everyone else has them, too.  Strangely, most strategists willingly ignore 50% of the tools remaining and focus on just research or just data.  I’ve learned that not only do research and data strengthen each other, they also cover each other’s blind spots.  If you consider yourself a strategist, you should use both.

The case for research informing data

Imagine a clothing brand that sells a sweater in both black and white in its online store.  Any data analyst can pull an astounding amount of information about the sales that will inform marketing strategy.  At its simplest, these data can show what percentage of people bought black vs. white out to as many decimal places as you please.  Without too much trouble, an analyst could also find interesting trends such as which color sold better at which time of the day or which one resulted in the larger average order size.  Add in data about the buyers and the analyst can tell you where black sold better than white or which sold better to longtime customers vs. first-time buyers.

Know what the data can’t tell you?  How many people wanted a blue sweater instead?

While data partisans prize data for their irrefutability, data tend to look backwards at what people did and not forwards at what they might do.  Looking forward means more than adding another sweater color.  In a larger sense, it means seeing opportunities that data simply can’t predict.

The case for data informing research

Research, on the other hand, has something to learn from data.  One need only look at polls where Americans report interest in healthier foods and compare that interest to actual sales of, say, Doritos to see the limits of research..  The discrepancy between what people say and what they do doesn’t invalidate research, of course.  Research gets strategists into the heads of consumers in a way that data simply can’t.  Like a CT scan, good research shows us not simply what consumers think, but how and why they think that way.

That said, data enhance research’s usefulness by giving scale and weight to findings or even by ensuring that the strategists answer the right questions in the first place.  In a famous example from the 1960s, one of the corn oil companies conducted research that proved, to them at any rate, that people preferred the taste of home-fried chicken over a new product, Shake ‘N Bake.  Correct answer, but to the wrong question.  Had the corn oil company recognized that people DID buy Shake ‘N Bake, perhaps they would have asked those purchasers WHY they bought the product and taken action to maintain sales of their product.

Come to think of it, I’d like to research a nice piece of fried chicken

Think “both/and” not “either/or”

A strategist who employs both data and research together can expect to provide stronger rationales for her recommendations.  Data give research a foot in the here-and-now while research gives data more understanding of why the numbers are what they are and how marketers can identify new opportunities.  Try using them to support one another and then maybe, just maybe, your opinions might count after all.

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