Small data... marginal gains... big performance

“The time has come when advertising has in some hands reached the status of a science. It is based on fixed principles and is reasonably exact. The causes and effects have been analysed until they are well understood.” Claude Hopkins, Scientific Advertising

Kevin Sutherland, Strategy Director, Seven

The quote above reads like the evangelical stuff that clutters up our Linkedin feeds every day. It’s the kind of hook many Big Data blog posts are hung on. It could easily have been written with programmatic in mind. But in fact it’s taken from a book first published in 1923.

I was reminded of it by Paul Feldwick’s excellent new book, The Anatomy of Humbug. It’s a practical history of advertising which explores the many schools of thought about what advertising is, and how it works, and the way they developed over the last 100 years.

What’s really interesting is that there’s a strong contemporary case for many of the differing philosophies: the rational, scientific approach described by Claude Hopkins; the emotional ‘school of seduction’; and even the ‘advertising as fame’ point of view. Indeed the results of the data analysed by Byron Sharp in How Brands Grow, which concludes that market penetration is achieved through (buying) mass reach and delivering distinctive and consistent imagery and messaging shares, the same philosophy as the school of fame.

“Marginal gains can help brands win. It is actually ‘small data’, in all its forms, all the time, that delivers marginal gains in performance”

Kevin Sutherland, Strategy Director, Seven

Feldwick’s analysis reminds us that despite waves of enthusiastic claims to the contrary, there is no single approach to successful, effective advertising. The same is true of the phoney war between the Big Data and creativity.

Which brings us back to the quote. Of course the idea of advertising as a science is totally wrong. But it may be a little bit right. WPP group’s rumoured purchase of Dunnhumby isn’t simply a commercial decision to take advantage of the current beleaguered state of the Tesco business. It’s a smart, strategic play. It certainly fits with Sir Martin Sorrell’s view, first expressed in 2013, that we are now “maths men, not mad men”. If that’s true then the future of the marketing communication industry will certainly rely on data. But not necessarily big data, and certainly not data alone. And as the lines between ‘advertising’ and ‘content’ have essentially disappeared, this point is highly relevant to any exploration of content marketing and data. Let me explain.

The lazy distinction between ‘art and science’ has been around for years. It’s historically been used to describe the (usually) positive tensions between strategy and creative (and to make each feel important). But of course you need both. Of course the creative process, and the outcome, can be improved by data, in all its forms. Data, used in the right way, can provide genuine insight (def: a deep understanding), which improves performance and results.

The best example of this in the real world is the British Olympic cycling team’s strategy of Marginal Gains, adopted for London 2012. On the final morning of the track events, team boss Dave Brailsford revealed to the BBC the secrets that led to seven gold medals – won against the best in the world.

Brailsford explained it thus: “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together. There’s fitness and conditioning, of course, but there are other things that might seem on the periphery, like sleeping in the right position, having the same pillow when you are away and training in different places. They’re tiny things but if you clump them together it makes a big difference.”

In a world where the audience sought by a brand is both more reachable and elusive than ever before, at a time when there have never been so many opportunities to connect with the customer, or piss them off, the idea of Marginal Gains can help brands to win too. And unlike the campaign-focused mindset and approach of traditional advertising, doing this effectively for content marketing means doing it all the time, everywhere. So our radical point of view on the Big Data debate is that it is actually ‘Small Data’ in all its forms, all the time, that delivers marginal gains in performance.

Small Data includes: statistics; search, social and owned media analytics; factual research and trend data; plus the unstructured, often weird, inputs that come from left field but often deliver true insight. All of these are data. All of these are valuable in the creative process. All of these can improve performance. We just need to identify what’s useful in each case and how to apply it.

These Small Data tell us what’s working well and what isn’t so we can increase relevance and preference. They tell us who’s influential and what they are talking about so we can join the right conversations and say the most, relevant, useful – or entertaining – things. They tell us the user experience people want and the things that drive them away. They tell us what people are searching for and what’s coming next.

They tell us which of our quizzes on Buzzfeed have performed best so we increase our effectives over the course of a campaign. They tell us which topics and formats are best for increasing reach for a given brand and engagement. We can see which calls to action are driving the biggest reach when using Outbrain or Taboola, which combinations of headline and image are driving clicks in email and on-site, what people are interested in sharing in social. They tell us when our sponsored, native ad content is actually outperforming editorial content. They give us clues about how to get better at what we are doing, and improve our performance.

Marginal Gains didn’t make the cycling team better athletes but it did enable them to perform better. Embracing data doesn’t mean that big creative ideas need to be made by machines, but it can expand our inspiration and improve performance.

Of course, not everyone agrees. I started with a quote from a legendary ad man so it feels right to end with another. Speaking on a Big Data panel at AdWeek a couple of years ago Sir John Hegarty said: “I’ve spent my life dealing with people who’ve got all the data in the world and yet they can’t invent anything.”

Of course, 30 years ago he invented the line Vorsprung durch Technik to sell Audi to the UK. “Advancement through technology” sounds like a pretty good line to sell Small Data too.

“small data tell us what’s working well and what isn’t so we can increase relevance and preference”


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