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Are You a Data Point or a Person?

It might sound like a silly question. The problem is, we confuse the two all the time.

Alyssa Greenfield
Jul 30, 2020 · 5 min read

You’re probably thinking, “of course I’m a person!”

And yet, there are countless ways we seem to remove humans from the equation when we’re working furiously toward answering business questions and solving problems.

This topic came up earlier this year in a conversation with my husband and got stuck in our minds for a while. He’s a computational biologist at a healthcare startup. I manage content and social media at a global tech company. Both of our brains contributed to this article.

Back when large gatherings were a thing, he returned from a healthcare conference with his head spinning from information overload (in the good, can’t-wait-to-let-it-all-sink-in sort of way). As we drank our morning coffee the following day, he told me a story from the conference about a woman who had Parkinson’s Disease. This woman had severe tremors. Yet, when she was asked what bothered her the most about her condition, her answer was “fatigue” — not the tremors.

Patients Want to Be Treated Like Humans

“The last decade has been all about characterizing the pathology of a disease and treating the underlying biology,” he told me. “All patients want is to be treated like a human.”

He explained that the holy grail for any scientist working in the pharmaceutical industry is to make an impact in people’s lives — to be, as they say in the industry, “patient-centric”. And yet, most researchers spend all day, every day behind the computer or at the bench doing experiments.

These researchers are largely aiming at one particular aspect of a disease at a very deep molecular level. They may go an entire career without having a direct conversation with a patient. As a result, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the drug they’re working on goes into real people with real lives and real perspectives on the disease they’re living with.

In his words: “People are more than a bunch of cells put together in complex tissue systems. They need to be treated holistically.”

He gave an example from a past job where he had a chart in front of him filled with patient data. Every column was a patient with a disease, anonymized, and every row had something that was measured from that patient. He found it so easy to get immersed in analyzing the numbers on the chart and completely forgot their real meaning. Can we learn from huge datasets? Absolutely. But we run into trouble when that’s all we see.

How do we learn from the data without losing sight of the humans behind it?

Before we started thinking through the answer to that question, it was my turn to share musings from an entirely different industry: marketing.

For the past year at work, three letters have been popping up in conversations again and again: S-E-O. If you’re reading this and work in marketing, you probably know exactly what SEO is. If not, SEO stands for “Search Engine Optimization”. It’s about optimizing your website — from the navigation all the way up to the blog posts you write — so it shows up at the top of search results when someone is looking for the information/products/etc. that you can offer them. The most successful people have their websites show up in results right under the Google ads people pay to place there. SEO is “free” website traffic. In the monetary sense, at least.

And let me tell you, getting it right at a niche company that sells a huge range of products for many different industries across the world — each with their own challenges and terminology — is no easy feat. Not to mention the four languages our website is available in.

Now, I understand the merits of a solid, thorough strategy for getting searchers onto your website. I also feel an obligation to our site visitors to provide them with quality information that helps them do their jobs, and some “low hanging fruit”-style SEO practices feel like they’re undermining that obligation. SEO and quality writing can absolutely coexist if you resist the temptation to approach things otherwise.

I certainly can’t speak to every company working to improve their search strategy, but the recommendations we’ve gotten from courses and consultants have been mostly about the data. What pages of our website bring in the most traffic from search? What is the “ideal” length of a blog post? What search terms are our competitors ranking for the most and how can we rank higher than them? What is the Google ranking this week for that one term the sales team keeps telling us our competitors rank for but we don’t? The list goes on.

Striking a Healthy Balance

Don’t get me wrong. The right approach to SEO can point you in the direction of some burning, unanswered questions people in your industry have. When we’ve discovered these questions, validated them with someone who knows the industry, and answered them in the most helpful way possible, the readers followed.

But just like the examples my husband shared, it’s easy to confuse data and people. At the very least, it’s easy to base entire strategies off the data without confirming your findings with actual people. You know, the people whose lives we want to make easier with the way we set up our website, the blog posts we write, and everything in between. Of course we ultimately want to move them in the direction of buying our products, but that’s not going to happen faster if we stuff a page with keywords. It could even slow down our progress if they can easily sniff out our approach.

We can’t look at SEO, and all the data that comes along with it, in a vacuum. We can’t lose sight of the people doing the searching, and even more than that, we can’t lose sight of all the other ways someone might learn about our company or end up on our website. Things like social media, events, press coverage, emails, and even word of mouth from a happy customer. I want to know what all of those people are looking for so I can answer their questions and give them the information they need.

I’ve written plenty of articles and shared plenty of advice on our company’s social media channels where a real, live person took the time to comment on how useful it was. The majority of the time, those topics come from conversations with other real, live people: with members of our global sales team who talk with customers every day, and with the customers themselves who share what their biggest challenges are. Can this strategy coexist with an SEO strategy? Absolutely. But we can’t lose sight of the humans looking for the information.

Which brings me back to the big question: How do we learn from the data without losing sight of the humans behind it?

Here’s what my husband and I came up with: we need to find ways to keep ourselves grounded, always. Whether you’re a computational scientist working with a huge dataset, a speaker delivering quotable soundbites, or a marketer buried in best practices, none of us can afford to lose sight of the multi-dimensional humans at the core of the work we’re doing.

We owe it to the people behind the data, from patients to prospective customers, to keep ourselves grounded.

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Alyssa Greenfield

Written by

Writer. Editor. Marketer. Content Strategist. Articles in The Startup, Better Marketing, The Ascent, The Writing Cooperative // alyssagreenfield.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +725K followers.

Alyssa Greenfield

Written by

Writer. Editor. Marketer. Content Strategist. Articles in The Startup, Better Marketing, The Ascent, The Writing Cooperative // alyssagreenfield.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +725K followers.

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