Why we should be clue hunting, not fact finding.

You should always be suspicious of Nicholas Cage.

And you certainly shouldn’t go swimming when he’s working on a new film.

Why that is, you ask? Well, the fact is, when Nicolas Cage appears in films, the number of swimming pool drownings also increases and has done across the course of any given year for the ten years between 1999 and 2009.

Source: Spurious Correlations

A fairly useless little fact because of course, this is an example of correlation, not causation. Whilst the two may overlap, one does not beget the other.

It does however prove a point. The stories that we tell from data can be wrong. And how we present insights derived from said data can be very misleading, just like our Nicholas Cage conspiracy theory above. This is an extremely important thing to remember as data has fast become one of the biggest commercial assets a business can have — especially in the marketing world.

Take the creative brief for example, the one artefact that can give a creative team the predatory advantage they need to transform businesses and brands. The representation of data within the brief is crucial and simply stating facts on the face of things alone won’t cut it — there needs to be some sort of game-changing insight as well — and the two are not always the same. Remember, data can’t tell you what to do, but more on that here.

For example, it’s a fact that lots of people feed their pets twice a day. But an insight would be that people feed their pets only when they are at home (so not during lunch) and usually when they are having their own dinner and breakfast due to our tendency to buy into pets finely tuned ability to make us feel guilty about eating in front of them.

In this case, the initial data reading is the what, but the insight — the feeling guilty part — is the why.

Admittedly it’s often further research that lands the insight or backs it up, but if the first piece of data was used in place of the insight it wouldn’t have given the creative team the strategic advantage they needed to respond to the brief. That first piece of data was a clue that begged the question ‘why’.

When it comes to the creative brief, data needs to be used as clues that uncover the memetic and weird but normal ways humans behave which become the real insight. And by clue-hunting we begin to peel back the onion; by asking ‘why?’ we get fresh perspective.

A slightly different example of where the ‘clue hunting’ approach can come into its own though is when it comes to performance. When we ask questions like ‘how is our media performing?’ ‘are we converting?’, or ‘is our customer engaging with our content?’ we of course turn to numbers and data, but we still need to stick on the old deerstalker and summon Dr Watson.

In a recent analysis for an automotive client we discovered that brochure downloads had one of the highest propensities to driving leads, despite the assumption that this was an antiquated way to consume content (downloading a PDF isn’t the slickest — or perhaps most modern — of experiences of course).

Looking at the facts alone, the new rationale would be to stick all of our eggs in one basket and optimise media towards getting brochure downloads. Not a bad short term solution, but the clue-hunting approach takes us a little further.

Instead of having a knee-jerk reaction and immediately trying to get every single customer to download a brochure on their first visit — we knew we needed to ask that pesky question “but why?” And in doing so, we uncovered the real reason this customer behaviour was taking place.

These users (especially on mobile devices) could not easily find the content and information they wanted on the actual website. Instead, this information was buried away in the PDF brochure — and this simple reason is why users are still downloading our online brochures. Not unlike adding items to a cart in order to determine shipping costs.

Instead of us immediately jumping to the conclusion that brochures are the holy grail to driving leads, we took a step back and pondered why this behaviour was happening. Once we figured out the true insight, we got into solution mode and worked up ideas aimed at creating a better experience for these customers. And therein lies the power of ‘clue hunting’ — by not just accepting facts at face value, we uncovered new opportunities that could yield far bigger results than if we simply drove more traffic to the brochure download page.

Famed Scottish writer Andrew Lang perhaps best nailed the point we’re trying to make way back in 1910, describing some poor bloke’s use of statistics as akin to the way ‘a drunk uses lampposts — for support rather than illumination’.

With that in mind, when it comes to data, it’s really our responsibility as marketers to make sure we’re never the drunk leaning on the lamppost. And that means clue-hunting for illumination, not fact-finding for support.

Patrick Cole, Senior Data Strategist and Stephen Graham, Senior Content Strategist

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