The Dangers of Lazy Data Analysis

Posted: Updated:
Scott Flood is the owner of Scott Flood Writing. Scott Flood is the owner of Scott Flood Writing.

A well-known consumer marketer emailed what they thought was an irresistible offer. Using my address, they deduced that I must be a St. Louis Cardinals fan and presented me with a great deal on some Cards memorabilia.

Bad move. My lifelong allegiance lies with a team that plays at the intersection of Clark and Addison in my hometown of Chicago. And few things trigger a Cubs fan’s fury as much as the sight of a particular red bird.

On the surface, using geographic locations to customize offers to local loyalties was sound. But baseball fans tend to be rabidly devoted to their favorite teams and scornful of the rest. I now live in a metropolitan area in which baseball fandom is generally divided between three National League teams, all having century-old rivalries with the others. Assuming the company used only zip codes to inform its selections, they had a two-in-three chance of infuriating the recipient and blowing a potential sale. We’ll give them an A for effort, but an F for execution.

Marketers have an astounding amount of data available to them these days -- more than any would have dreamed possible just a decade ago. Consumers who once tended to be suspicious about disclosing their phone numbers now freely turn over many of the most intimate details of their lives. That’s how folks like Amazon appear to magically stay a step ahead of you when you shop online.

All too often, though, those companies do a poor job of using that data. Some are like the chain of office stores that pays attention to everything I buy, and then suggests the identical item on my next visit to their website. I buy a black tape dispenser and two weeks later, their website suggests a black tape dispenser as something I need. If there’s logic there, it escapes me.

More often, the companies try to use all that data without giving any thought to the people behind it. I’m sure that’s what happened in the example I cited. I’d wager that a recent marketing grad who knew nothing about baseball or fan attitudes was given products to push and simply assumed that one team was as good as any other. I’ve had other merchants assume that since I like to fish (I do), I must also be an avid hunter (I’m not). Or take the fact that I like to hike (yep) and parlay that into an assumption that I’m also a runner (only if I’m being chased).

Data can tell you a lot about your customers and prospects, but it doesn’t tell you everything. You can use it as a starting point, but if you really want to make effective connections, you have to think beyond the data to what’s been called people’s social identities.

Increasingly, we’re defined by the groups of people who share our interests. We may be Evangelical Christians, Democrats, golfers, quilters, or Cubs fans. Most of us are combinations of several social identities, and we spend much of our life in the orbits of people who share some of our identities. If I told you that someone was a Republican Evangelical golfer, you’d make different judgments about them than if they were a Democratic Catholic quilter.

The more social identities people share, the more likely they’ll exhibit similar behaviors. Many decisions about purchases and politics are driven largely by social connections.

The key is to go beyond raw data and look for signs of shared interests. One way to do that is to aggregate data from multiple sources and look for matches. Another is to stop lumping prospects into large groups like “suburban mothers,” and instead thinking in terms of smaller social groups like “Evangelical 30-something mothers who are regular joggers.” Not only will those tighter groupings help companies pinpoint marketing efforts, they’ll allow for the development of messages that are more targeted and meaningful to people sharing specific social identities.

Why do marketing efforts using data fall short so often? I suspect that it’s because the business world is increasingly dominated by specialists. Companies hire employees with narrowly focused degrees in business marketing or data science. They gain deep knowledge in those fields but lack the broader understanding of the interplay of people and society that typically comes with a liberal arts education. They access the data but aren’t curious enough to explore the story behind it. That’s when a Cubs fan discovers images of Cards swag in his inbox.

Scott Flood is the owner of Scott Flood Writing.

  • Perspectives

    • Job Insights For The Third Quarter

      To provide accurate and timely employment forecasts for business leaders, Express Employment Professionals International Headquarters conducts an ongoing Job Insights survey to track quarterly hiring trends across a wide range of industries. Express surveyed business owners, decision makers, and human resource professionals about the overall hiring trends in their markets and how they impact their hiring decisions. Overall confidence remains high going into the second half of 2018.



Company Name:
Confirm Email:
INside Edge
Morning Briefing
BigWigs & New Gigs
Life Sciences Indiana
Indiana Connections


  • Most Popular Stories

    • Purdue Professor, Wife Indicted For Fraud

      A Purdue University professor and his wife have been indicted on federal fraud charges. U.S. Attorney Thomas Kirsch's office says Qingyou Han and Lu Shao are accused of hatching a scheme to defraud the National Science Foundation. 

    • Maureen Krauss (pictured left) is chief economic development officer at the Indy Chamber and Tom Leinbarger (pictured right) is chief executive officer at Cummins Inc.

      Indiana Businesses Fret Potential Trade War

      As a potential trade war looms over recently-imposed tariffs on China, Indiana businesses are expressing concern about the fallout. It is estimated that global trade supports more than 800,000 jobs in Indiana, many of those in the manufacturing and agriculture sectors. In 2016, Columbus-based Cummins Inc. sold more than 500,000 engines in China. Chief Executive Officer Tom Linebarger says the company's global footprint generates jobs and investment in Indiana.

    • The fund was first announced as part of Holcomb's Next Level Agenda. (Image courtesy of the state of Indiana.)

      Next Level Fund Makes First Investments

      Governor Eric Holcomb’s office says the Next Level Indiana Trust Fund has made its first two funding commitments. The fund, created by the Indiana General Assembly in 2017, has awarded a total of $21.5 million to Indianapolis-based High Alpha Capital and Colorado-based Foundry Group.

    • Fiat Chrysler Launching First-of-Its-Kind Clinic

      Fiat Chrysler Automobiles US LLC, which has five manufacturing facilities in Howard and Tipton counties, is partnering with Indianapolis-based St. Vincent Health on a new health and wellness center. FCA says it is the first domestic automaker to offer a near-site employee clinic. The "one-stop shop" is designed to deliver care to a workforce where some 40 percent do not have a primary care physician and often turn to emergency and urgent care facilities for primary...

    • and Lise Pace

      Bosma Enterprises Makes Hire, Promotion

      Bosma Enterprises has named Master Sgt. (Ret.) Jeffrey Mittman chief operating officer. He previously held positions at the Defense Finance and Accounting Services and National Industries for the Blind leveraging. Mittman served for 21 years in the United States Army, including four combat tours. Also, Lise Pace has been promoted to vice president of marketing and advocacy. She started with the organization as a volunteer in 2008.