The Insight Game and Its Perils

  |  February 27, 2012   |  Comments

One of the highest barriers to insight is poorly planned, poorly implemented, unmaintained technology.

Devout clerics used to argue how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Some say it's a certainty that one day, all the knowledge in all Creation will fit on one. The world in a grain of sand - or silicon: this awaits us. And the insights we might gain from this concentration of knowledge could prove limitless.

But we cannot divorce what is commonly thought of as knowledge - history, the arts, philosophy, and math - from new data that will also be compiled on each new day going forward. Information about everything from the wingspan of the largest insect to the sequence of buttons I have clicked on a website or iPad app will continue to be stacked like so many sheaves of wheat for the thresher. Yet, it is by the behavioral information, threshed and ground and baked for consumption, that our marketing future shall be nourished. Behavioral data shows every sign of serving as currency in what is rapidly becoming a world economy of information technology.

The purpose of knowledge would seem to be its ability to help one navigate the unknown: giving us a map as we move through the territory. The more detailed the map, the less likely we'll get lost.

For digital marketers, this map can be summed up as a single concept: insight.

We may imagine our clicks and bits and bytes are ephemeral. But even as we forget the last email we sent, our online activity is recorded and, with increasingly rare exception, not merely kept, but ogled, prodded, poked, matched, calculated, combined, compared, and transmogrified into those insights.

Behavioral science is old. How many loaves to bake for Saturnalia? How many nickel cigars to put by for the week before Easter? The provident merchant would know this and more, or else find his belongings out on the cobblestones one day.

How did the merchant happen upon these insights? By looking at data. The old-fashioned way was to write consumption data down in a ledger and in a scene reminiscent of Dickens, have a scrivener copy the data into a table so that comparisons might be made. Today those scriveners are ghosts in the machine, and we can make comparisons of comparisons never before possible.

The insight game as it's played today assumes valuations for certain activities that lead to the insight. The latest trope is to say that nothing matters except insight.

And that is true - much as nothing matters about a car so much as that it gets you to where you are going.

But when insight is missing there is often another component broken or lagging as well. In my experience, the missing element is good technology. One of the highest barriers to insight is poorly planned, poorly implemented, unmaintained technology.

It's the link that insight wants to forget.

Without getting the technology right, the insights are either impossible or incorrect. Imagine a map where the cartographer had a faulty compass. Or couldn't understand elevation statistics - causing you to run up a mountain you thought was a plain.

While not universal, it's more common than it should be: organizations hoping for insights and valuing those highly; while wanting to believe the underlying technology has become somewhat the commodity.

Well-planned, well-implemented technology is not only essential to the development of accurate insights - it needs to be budgeted. How often have you seen requests for end-results (insights) without an adequate budget for implementation? For me, the answer is "often" if not "regularly."

So the insight game relies too often on pieces left off the board. Or placed in the hands of teams that have only a shallow understanding of the game itself. Example: does the implementation team know that a multi-market banner campaign needs to make sure its redirect page is delayed long enough for a call to be made to the analysis tool? It's little things like that - the equivalent of a tiny cog in a finely crafted watch - that can throw off all the measurement. And when the measurement is thrown, so is the insight.

In the above instance, it might seem that campaign had few click-throughs. But really, it was because in many cases the redirect page didn't have enough time to load the tagging information and get itself counted. The result is faulty data which, relied upon, feeds faulty insight.

Insight today is valued highly; but depends on technology often taken for granted. This is a conflict in the back room that could lead to conflict in the board room. It's as important today to know how to beat back this conflict as it is to know how to tease out insights.

The provident marketer today will know who are her go-to tech people; and the provident organization will know that they have to provide as much to the marketer.

Don't prop your insight deck on rickety legs. The seas are rough. Lacking sound architecture, the insight deck, and everyone playing the game will hit the surf - and possibly be swept away in a maelstrom of inaccuracy.

Insights and technology serve us equally. Think back to the clerics of old. And of angels dancing - together - on the head of a pin.



Andrew Edwards

Andrew V. Edwards is a digital marketing executive with 20 years of experience serving large organizations, and has been an operating executive and digital marketing consultant since the 1980s. 

In 2004 Edwards co-founded the Digital Analytics Association and is currently a director emeritus. He has designed analytics training curricula for business teams and has led seminars on digital marketing subjects.

Besides writing a regular column about analytics for ClickZ, Andrew wrote the groundbreaking Dawn of Convergence Analytics report, and authored the book, Digital is Destroying Everything, in 2015.

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