Big Data Isn’t The Solution


Everywhere you look marketers, digital marketing consultants and thought leaders are chiming off about big data. Just yesterday I read this post extolling the virtues of data-based marketing in place of empathy-based marketing. In it the author says, and I quote, “And if you are not using data as the primary source of strategy development… you are selling vaporware.”



I get it. I live it. Hell I preach it. But this idea that the two are mutually exclusive is insane. Further the premise that data-based marketing is inherently more effective and legitimate than empathy-based marketing reveals a basic lack of experience and historical marketing context. Data is simply an input whose value is derived not from the data itself but the person analyzing that data. And thus great data in the hands of a dolt is actually worse than no data at all.

Like it or not, there are people in the world like Don Draper. They have an uncanny ability to intuit consumer motivation. They don’t need big data or any data… they have a sixth sense. So defining marketing that isn’t intrinsically tied to data-based recommendations as vaporware is both uninformed and more importantly incorrect and without basis in fact.

Further, to suggest that all data-driven marketing is something more than vaporware is equally misleading. God knows there are plenty of data hacks out there passing themselves off as marketers.

The simple fact is that data, if tortured long enough can be made to say virtually anything. You need look no further than your local social scientist for proof of that concept.

Data Only Tells You What Happened

The digerati will have you believe that data tells you the entire story. Fortunately for fans of stories, these folks are so busy with their spreadsheets that they don’t have time to create literary works for our consumption because their stories would stink.

Great stories answer five key questions in the mind of the reader: Who… What…Where…When… and Why.

And therein lies the problem with big data. It only answers the first four.

Big Data will tell you what someone did, clicked on, bought, etc., but it won’t tell you why. Why (at least in marketing) is almost always the exclusive domain of the marketing strategist. At best data can show you patterns… but at the end of the day, you’ll need a talented marketing strategist to figure out the why behind the what.

And why IS intrinsically tied to empathy.

Data+Insight=Brilliant Marketing

But buyer beware.

Great marketing strategiststhe Don Drapers of today are far and few between.

Precious few people in the world of marketing are fluent in research and data analysis, digital marketing & traditional marketing AND have the ability to craft a Vulcan Mind Meld with your prospective customer. So if you want to truly exploit the power of data, then go find a modern day Don Draper. Give them a test drive or two because even a blind squirrel can find a nut once.

Probe to see how intuitive they are… because they can have PHD in Applied Mathematics, but if they can’t empathize with your target audience as Don Draper so famously does (heck even members of the digerati agree with me on this) they’ll give you lots of information but precious little insight.

And brilliant insight…. that’s where the margin lies. 



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About Tom Martin

Tom is 25+ year veteran of the sales & marketing industry with a penchant for stiff drinks, good debates and showing companies how to Sell Greatly, and turn conversations into customers. He is the founder of Converse Digital , author of The Invisible Sale and a contributing writer for Advertising Age. Tom guides clients through the digital sales & marketing maze and helps companies teach their sales force how to Painlessly Prospect their way to more sales. Follow him on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.


  1. Mitch Genato says

    Found it very refreshing to read your rant. Like your writing style and diligence in how you build and state your case. Guess you just found yourself another fan from halfway around the world. Would be nice to know if you have any speaking engagements around Asia or even in the Philippines.

    • Thanks Mitch.

      I don’t currently — but am completely open to taking on additional events in and around Asia. Feel free to pass my name around… who knows, maybe we can continue the discussion IRL.

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