The dumbest mistakes you can make with data

In this opinion piece taken from the LinkedIn Agency Influencer program Mediacom's Alex Kirk sets out some simple rules to help you start managing your data needs more efficiently.

Smart use of information is transformational to any organisation, at any stage of maturity. Entire new industries can spring up from new data, while traditional industries can evolve and adapt to changing circumstances.

Alex Kirk


There’s also the other thing. That’s when you spend huge amounts of time collecting, cleaning, and compiling vast quantities of data, you apply your not inconsiderable brainpower to it, and then, accompanied by the sound of angelic trumpets and the plinking on of a thousand light-bulbs… you shoot yourself squarely in both feet.

Let us count some of the ways that can happen:

1) Assuming Data Gives You Answers

Good data – like its partner, good strategy – raises provocative questions, doesn’t give you ready-made answers, and absolutely will require you to use your creative human brain. Anyone who assumes that the mere act of just organising information will deliver a silver bullet to all their problems is deluding themselves.

Cooking food takes more than just lining up a bunch of ingredients and waiting for them to spontaneously turn into chicken chasseur.

2) Confusing Correlation With Causation

This is, in my own experience, the most common banana skin that organisations slip on, and leads to some of the daftest and long-lasting mistakes. Just because something happened right before something else, it doesn’t mean that the former caused the latter. The Latin for this is post hoc ergo procter hoc; the technical term used by professional data analytists is… well, usually they just slap themselves in the forehead and question how it is we ever evolved from the slime in the first place. Correlations are useful, but you need to know their place.

The number of people who died by falling into a swimming pool has nothing to do with the release schedule of films starring Mr. Nicholas Cage

3) Herd Behaviour

When numbers are repeated widely enough, and when they are repeated by sources who we are inclined to believe, it becomes harder for us to un-believe them – even when the data is staring us in the face. This is why fake news works, or why a lot of those who work in digital advertising are convinced that TV is dying. There may be plenty of other data out there, but among their tribe it’s just a lot easier, psychologically, to believe what the rest of that tribe is already saying. It’s hard to be the one who calls out the emperor’s nakedness – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be aware it happens. A lot.

Three words: President Donald Trump. Any questions?

4) Waiting For More Data

At some point you have to be decisive, and when this one happens it says an awful lot more about those making the decision to wait than it does about the complexity of the decision they are trying to make. You need information to make the call, but you will never – ever – have all the information you need to be 100% sure. The quote below is from the US commander in WWII, General Patton.

“A good plan, executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”

5) Asking For Too Much Data

The tyranny of choice is something we can all relate to, but for some reason we rarely apply to how we use data. A strategist I used to work with liked to quote the example that if someone throws you a tennis ball, you’ll catch it – but if someone throws you a dozen tennis balls, you won’t catch any. If anyone tries to throw you twelve tennis balls worth of information, you’ll end up getting nowhere. Focus, focus, focus.

In 2010 LexisNexis found that employees spent more than half their workdays receiving and managing information rather than using it to do their jobs. In 2017, it’s not like we have less information to deal with.

6) Not Knowing What Data Is Really, Actually, Important

Linked to the previous one, this might sound similar but is actually bloody hard all on its own. Knowing what metrics matter is the most important thing you can do. Understanding what really drives your business, what truly puts the oomph in your numbers, should be the single most critical item on a to-do list for any business – but investing in discovering the wrong metrics should equally be top of the list of no-nos. The amount of time you can waste, and the amount of money you can leave on the table by chasing after the wrong thing, can be truly staggering.

Remember when business cared about how many ‘likes’ they had? It’s kinda hard to believe that was a thing.

And finally, the dumbest one of all…

7) Not Knowing What You Know

There is a very old, very human need that tells us there might be something more interesting over the next hill. When it comes to business though, the most interesting and most provocative information might well be right under your nose, inside those drives that hum away in a cupboard in your office. Before looking outside the cave, it’s well worth exhausting what’s inside it first. There’s actually a great case study on this in the Harvard Business Review. Read it, learn it, apply the lessons you learn.

It took Spotify years before they realised that they could make a whole ad campaign out of their own data. Read the story here.

There are of course around a gazillion other ways you can make a mess of working with data. The key behaviours that I try and stick to is to remember that less is often more, and that data almost always lies. The most important thing though is that data is useless without you, the human.

Use it wisely.

Alex Kirk is head of systems and automation at Mediacom

This article is part of the LinkedIn Agency Influencer program. See more from the program by clicking on the banner below.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.