Don’t Let Data Idolatry Kill Your Content Marketing

In the modern era, data is the fallback solution to all problems. Got a question or problem? Break it down, slap a numerical value on each piece of it, track them all, and plug your results into an algorithm. When everything can supposedly be quantified, “the idolatry of data” has begun to trump all other ways of thinking, as Leon Wieseltier recently put it in The New York Times.

All of which is not a tragedy—our technology-enhanced ability to track and process events has helped solve some big, and previously unsolvable, problems. But in our efforts to understand the world around us via data points we collect, we tend to oversimplify, assigning numerical value to things that don’t necessarily exist in the confines of numbers.

This causes problems for many brands trying to create content, because they enter with skewed expectations—where’s the magic algorithm or KPIs from past campaigns to provide the perfect solution off the bat? Sure, we can measure traffic and engagement and see that a piece did well after publication, but trying to use metrics to determine what to publish in the first place can be a red herring. At best, you risk continually duplicating what’s worked in the past. At worst, you wind up wasting time and resources on content that pleases no one.

This isn’t to say that metrics are useless. Brands can—and should—do their due diligence with them. But successful content creators recognize the need to rely on the qualitative judgment and talents of human beings. Just ask an editor at Random House trying to guess which manuscript on his desk will be the next Da Vinci Code, or an exec at NBC trying to guess which pilot will turn into the new Scandal. The intangibles of creativity, and storytelling quality, remain outside the realm of predictive data.

Like publishing, marketing has never been an exact science. Perfect KPIs and metrics are near impossible when you’re measuring the overall pluses and minuses of co-sponsoring an event, or buying a billboard on I-95. And so, for CMOs creating strategies for content marketing and asking, “How do I know what’s going to work before I put time and money into trying it?” the answer is, “You don’t.”

Yes, we can measure trends, A/B test headlines, and build algorithms that spit out quantitative values for every piece of content your brand publishes. But there will always be that qualitative gap that all the data points still can’t illuminate.

So what’s the answer? Rod Kurtz, a New York-based media strategist who works with Fortune 500 companies and startups, put it thusly: “You can look at the numbers after a campaign, but you also want to ask, ‘Did we tell the story as best we could?’ It’s like magazine editors putting a certain person on the cover, because they think it’ll sell copies. They take action based on their instincts, then they see how many copies sold.”

In short, make the best pre-publication predictions you can, using the best experts you can find. Then rely on both content metrics and the talent on your team to optimize your storytelling, watch for trends, iterate when necessary, and continuously improve. Use data to your advantage, but don’t let it blind you from your team’s greatest value: their creative instincts.

Melissa Lafsky Wall (@Lafsky) is the founder of Brick Wall Media.

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