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Data or creativity? What will resonate better with our prospects? What will best contribute to our bottom line?
Marketers have been struggling to answer those questions for years, but while each marketer may have their own preference, the industry-wide consensus keeps switching between one extreme or the other.
“It’s like a pendulum. As data came into play, people went really hard to that side, and now it’s starting to swing back,” Guido Bartolacci, New Breed’s Head of Demand Generation says.
At New Breed, we take both a data-informed approach and a creative approach to our marketing strategies and content creation, but we do occasionally come across cases where the two approaches are at odds with each other.
The Origins of the Debate: All of the Creativity, None of the Insight
Originally there was only sales. Salespeople would travel town to town, door to door plying their wares, or they operated shops and market stalls where buyers could find the things they needed. Buyers couldn’t easily research the options they had available to them to purchase, so they had to rely on sellers for product information.
Then as technological advances like mass production led to an excess of goods for sale, marketing and advertising came into play to try and convince buyers to purchase specific goods and services.
“Sales was more pushy, more persuasive, so early marketing tactics mirrored that,” Amanda Nielsen, New Breed’s Partner Marketing Strategist says.
Early tactics include newspaper ads and billboards containing persuasive and provocative words and images that tried to coerce people into taking action.
“When marketing started out, all we had was creativity. Before we had ample access to technology there was a lot of focus on brand and persuasion,” Amanda says.
“All they had to go on at the time was correlation, not causation,” Guido adds. “They could say, we put this billboard up, we started running this TV ad, we put this ad in the newspaper and our sales went up. But, they couldn’t say it was because somebody saw that ad that they decided to go into their store and purchase that item.”
As personal computers rose in accessibility and more consumers started using the internet, marketers flooded it with content, realizing it was a new medium they could use to reach consumers.
“When the internet came about and businesses realized they could use it to sell their products, they started oversaturating it with poor-quality content,” Amanda says. “They were still using the creative mindset, the flashy, intrusive billboard-like content, but instead of lining highways with it, they were filling your inbox with it. They literally translated the worst-practices of physical marketing into the digital world.”
In addition to getting a new outreach channel, marketers also gained new insight into the effectiveness of their marketing efforts.
“With digital and all the tracking in place related to digital, there’s a lot more causation that you can see,” Guido says. “You can see the path that somebody took from seeing your ad, clicking on your ad, coming to your website, converting on an offer and becoming a customer. You can track that person all the way from initial interaction to conversion.”
These new, more tangible insights allowed marketers to learn from how consumers interacted with their content to improve their strategy. As the way buyers used the internet evolved, businesses realized old-fashioned intrusive outreach was no longer tolerable for consumers.
“At the same time this was happening, the first social media networks were starting to emerge, and I think that triggered this desire for personalization and authenticity that just would continue to escalate into the present and beyond,” Amanda says. “As social media and the internet become more accessible, more detailed and more personal, marketers have had to tailor their communications to do the same.”
Should Marketing Be More Creative or Data-Driven?
The abundance of data marketers have at their fingertips has massively increased. According to a 2018 Forbes column, 90% of the data in the world at that time had been generated in the preceding two years.
The amount of data being produced and collected every day is only increasing, and marketers use that information to inform their strategies. Instead of relying on what they think will resonate with buyers, they can research exactly what their buyers’ interests and pain points are.
With data being used to supplement every component of their marketing strategy, the more intangible creative elements are sometimes being viewed as unnecessary. But a purely data-driven approach can result in marketing communications that are bland and uninspiring.
“Data can’t be the whole crux of your entire strategy,” Amanda says. “It doesn’t matter if you know every single thing about this consumer, and you know the perfect solution to their problem. If you present it in an ineffective way, they’re not going to be interested in what you have to say.”
“Data will typically help you answer the ‘why’ and ‘what’ you need to be doing when it comes to marketing,” Guido says, “but then the creative side can help you understand how to actually make that happen.”
For example, data might tell you that based on your current conversion rates, you need to increase your traffic to hit your revenue goal. Your analytics and reporting have told you what you need to do, but not how to do it.
“The creative side has never and will never leave marketing, but the data-driven side has really entered the fold over the past 15–20 years or so,” Guido says. “We have more data informing us what we need to be focused on and the types of behaviors we can drive, but we still need to be creative in how we go about addressing the things the data is telling us.”
Additionally, stepping away from the certainties of data and taking a creative approach is necessary to push the boundaries of marketing.
“Crushing your goal is going to come out of creativity more than the data-driven aspect,” Guido says. “Hitting your goal and making sure you’re on pace and doing the right things happens from being data-driven. But if you really want to exceed your goal and do something that changes the landscape, that’s where the creative side is really going to have an impact.”
Sticking to what has been successful in the past always feels like a safer bet. To compensate for this, don’t focus on what you could gain from the success of a new idea, think about what you will definitely miss out on by not trying.
“The more risk-averse you are, the more likely you are to stick to the numbers and just stick to what the data is telling you,” Guido says.
“High-risk, high reward,” Amanda chimes in.
“But then there’s that aspect of it too. The more open you are to risks, the more open you’ll be to go into the creative side,” Guido responds.
Ultimately, being too data-driven is just as risky as branching into more creative, intangible areas because it doesn’t allow you to adapt to unexpected changes that there is no data for.
Too Much Data = Too Little Innovation
While data enables marketers to know everything they want and more about their ideal customers, that knowledge doesn’t change the fact that people buy from other people. When they’re making big budget purchases, they want to buy from someone they trust, and an emotional connection to a company’s brand is a major contributor to developing trust.
“You can have all the best technical specs in the world and have a top-of-the-line product that’s better than anything that existed ever, but if you have a close competitor and that competitor has a brand that resonates with your prospect and you don’t, chances are they’re going to go with the company with the good brand,” Amanda says.
Data can act as blinders for marketers: instead of looking for ways to differentiate themselves in new ways as technology evolves, data-driven marketers are confined to acting on the existing data they have. However, past data can’t always predict future trends.
“Everything is so purely random and chaotic that the same exact set of strategies could produce a positive result in 2005, but in 2015 you could have a completely different result because people are constantly evolving their habits and preferences,” Amanda says. “Technology’s changing. The whole entire consumer landscape is changing a little bit at a time, so you need to be sure that you’re innovating to align with them.”
To prevent data from stifling innovation, you need to be open to new ideas and outside opinions. When developing strategies in response to insights from data, that data shouldn’t be the sole factor you use to choose which actions to take.
If you know you need to increase site traffic in order to increase ROI, don’t just look at your most impactful strategies and duplicate them. If paid is your number one source of traffic, you shouldn’t just double the amount you're investing in your current paid ads. Instead, you should try and find new ways to build off your existing success.
“It might be good to get a second opinion and be open to other ideas...Don’t taint their ideas with what you think you should be doing or what the data says you should be doing so much,” Guido says.
Bringing new people into the process and promoting diversity of thought, experience and perspective are essential for adapting and evolving to change.
Balance Creativity with Data for Optimal Results
Focusing solely on data or solely on creativity both have weaknesses. Too heavy of a focus on data results in a prioritization on keywords, conversion rates and revenue that doesn’t take into account what the buyer wants and needs throughout the buyer’s journey. Taking too creative of an approach can result in pretty-sounding, jargon-filled content and websites that are appealing to look at but don’t provide value.
To create the most effective marketing campaigns, use data as a jumping off point and then let creativity take over. After a while, you can use data to measure the campaign’s success and strengthen your data-informed foundation for your next campaign.
“If you haven’t been leveraging data in the past, it’s time to start. If you’ve been too focused on data and haven’t been creative, it’s time to be more creative,” Guido says. “There needs to be a balance of both. You’re not going to survive with just one.”
“Balance is the spice of life,” Amanda adds. “Diversify your risks so you can afford to take them, because not taking risks is going to make your company stagnant. You’re never going to grow unless you take risks.”
Quinn is a writer and copyeditor whose work ranges from journalism to travel writing to inbound marketing content.