Opinion

Data is your rocket fuel

Once you have enough of it, what do you do with it? Lucky Generals founder Andy Nairn dives into data.

In recent years, marketers have become fond of saying that “data is the new oil”. I’ve never been a fan of this expression (I’m old enough to remember similar pronouncements about integration, personalisation, experience, influence and many more). But the phrase did finally resonate with me on the 20th April last year: the day oil prices turned negative for the first time in history.

This incredible situation was yet another surprise consequence of the COVID-19 crisis. Global demand had dried up overnight but supply remained stable, so the industry ran out of storage. As panic mounted, traders started paying dealers to take oil off their hands.

To me, this development made the marketing metaphor much more powerful. Originally, the comparison was supposed to position data as a precious resource which can lubricate the cogs and wheels of an organisation (all true). But now, the analogy reminded us that a valuable commodity can also become a costly burden, if it’s allowed to build up in enormous quantities, without being used.

In fact, in many businesses, that interpretation is probably closer to the truth. Modern companies gather data on an unimaginable scale, collecting numbers that we can barely get our heads around: gigabytes, terabytes, even petabytes. But they don’t always use it, to similarly massive effect.

The result is that brand owners are often sitting on a goldmine of information (to mix commodity metaphors) without realising it. They might consider themselves unlucky, oblivious to the riches that are under their noses. Or at best, they might content themselves with hacking out the odd nugget from time to time: a little chunk of insight that will help them tighten up their targeting or focus a bit of NPD.

Given the expense of collecting it, I think this is a waste. I think we all need to be much more demanding of the data we amass. It doesn’t just have to be piles of tedious information that we gather in the background, it can be the fun, fizzy, facts that we put centre-stage.

Spotify does this brilliantly. In December 2016, they launched a campaign that simply took amazing statistics, from their enormous database of listening habits, and used them to make fun observations about the year just past. For instance, one poster said: “Dear person in LA who listened to the ‘Forever alone’ playlist for 48 hours on Valentine’s Day, you OK?”.

This wasn’t a one-off. The company has built on this approach (now called “Spotify Unwrapped”) every year since. For example, in 2020 they used data to express gratitude to all those who had used music to keep us going, including “the creator of the playlist ‘women are keeping this rap sh*t afloat rn’”.

It’s an approach which has helped Spotify become the world’s biggest platform for streaming music, with 144 million paid subscribers and 320 million monthly active users as of Q3 2020. But it’s a route that’s available to less glamorous brands too – and doesn’t even require the brand to own the data.

For an example of this, look at Affinity’s award-winning campaign for Prospan, from a few years ago. The natural children’s cough remedy was fighting against bigger rivals, to maintain its Australian sales. The agency tackled this by using a fun tone of voice, based on the insight that parents often ignore a cough in the hope that it goes away. But the most innovative aspect of the campaign was arguably the creation of the world’s first “cough predictor”.

Sure, this was a purpose-built algorithm but it mostly used data that was in the public domain, such as temperature stats, pollution figures and social listening research. By repurposing this information, Prospan was able to focus its limited budgets on the precise areas and occasions where most parents would be debating whether or not to take action.

What I love about both these stories is that they show the true power of data. In Spotify’s case, dry user information has been transformed into witty social commentary. And in Prospan’s case, official statistics have been used to make a smart medical intervention.

If you have your own customer data (or have access to information from elsewhere), then you should consider yourself very lucky. Just don’t squander your opportunity. Information is precious. And data is like oil. But you should treat it like creative rocket fuel, not just as an expensive commodity produced by massive bores.

Andy Nairn is a founder of Lucky Generals. This piece has been adapted from his new book, Go Luck Yourself.

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