Saturday, April 27, 2013

Why Intuition Still Matters in Marketing

There's no doubt that data and data analysis are fundamentally changing the way marketing is practiced. Big data is one of the hottest topics in marketing circles today, and many thought leaders argue that extracting insights from customer data is now an essential driver of competitive advantage.

Because data has become so important to effective marketing, some pundits contend that it should be the primary tool for making marketing decisions and that human intuition no longer plays a significant role in marketing.

Rich Beatty with CMG Partners addressed this topic in an article for AdvertisingAge titled, "Data Guides, But the Gut Decides." In this article, Beatty asks whether the growing importance of data, analysis, metrics, and data scientists in marketing means that science will kill the need for the art of marketing. Beatty says that most CMOs define art as the process of using intuition in making marketing decisions and science as the process of using data to inform decisions.

Beatty argues that both science and art play important roles in effective marketing. He writes, "Science provides the foundation for informed decision-making, while art is an accelerant that brings the insight to life in a more impactful way."

I agree that art (intuition) still has a place in marketing, but you need the right kind of intuition. There are three basic kinds of human intuition. Ordinary intuition is what we typically call hunches or gut instinct. We experience ordinary intuition as an emotional feeling. When you meet someone for the first time and after a half-hour of conversation say to yourself, "I feel like I can trust this person," that's ordinary intuition at work.

Expert intuition (the kind of intuition described by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink) is a form of rapid thinking where you jump to a conclusion when you recognize something familiar. When we use expert intuition, we essentially draw on memories of what we've experienced or learned in the past and use that stored knowledge to solve a similar problem. We do this very quickly, and we're not usually aware of the process our brain is using. We just "know" what decision to make. Expert intuition can play an important role in making routine, repetitive marketing decisions.

When faced with major marketing decisions that present new issues or challenges, the kind of intuition you need is what William Duggan has called strategic intuition. Duggan is a professor at the Columbia Business School and the author of several books on this topic, including Strategic Intuition:  The Creative Spark in Human Achievement.

Duggan describes strategic intuition as a flash of insight that occurs when a person taps memories of what he or she has experienced or learned in the past and combines that stored knowledge in a new way to solve a new problem. This is the fundamental difference between expert intuition and strategic intuition - expert intuition is used to deal with familiar problems, while strategic intuition is used when we need to solve a problem we've never encountered before. Duggan argues that strategic intuition has played an important role in most forms of human intellectual achievement, from scientific discoveries to military and business strategy.

Strategic intuition will remain critical for effective marketing because data and data analysis have inherent limitations. I'll have more to say about this in a future post, but one of the major limitations merits a brief mention here. Data and data analysis rarely provide a clear answer when a major marketing decision is involved. This lack of clarity can exist because:
  • We don't have data regarding some important aspect of the decision.
  • The data we have doesn't conclusively indicate that one decision is better than the alternatives.
  • The success of the decision made will depend on future events, and data can only describe what has happened in the past.
I'm a strong advocate of evidence-based decision making, and I believe that marketers should use sound data to inform and guide their decisions. But data and analytics do not eliminate the need for strategic intuition in marketing.

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