Anecdote ≠ Data​: How Personal Bias Hurts Your Bottom Line

Tara Hunt

Tara Hunt

Tara Hunt, CEO of Truly, has over 20 years experience in market research and strategy on both client and agency side. She wrote one of the first books on how the social web is changing business, was named one of 2013's Entrepreneurial Women to Watch by Entrepreneur Magazine and one of the Most Influential Women in Technology in Fast Company. She has built an engaged and enthusiastic business audience online of over 345,000 followers, including a significant number of thought leaders. Tara combines a data-centric with a human-centric approach to building an audience, leaning heavily on insights into consumer patterns and behaviors while keeping an eye on online trends and changing expectations.

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Story time: after hundreds of hours of research – pouring through case studies, industry reports, conducting customer interviews, performing tests and gathering social intelligence data – our team put together a report of recommendations and a full plan (including content, audiences, platforms, etc.) and presented it excitedly to the client. In our research, which was validated by several sources, we found some pretty big insights that shone a light on the best path forward to helping them achieve their goals.

After we walked the client through the findings and the plan, we turned to them to get their feedback.

The response?

“I don’t like this, that, and the other thing, so we shouldn’t do it. I’d rather do this other thing (we’ve been doing without any success).”

We obviously haven’t quoted them word for word. But, that “other thing” was in direct conflict with what the research said we should be doing. They sought us out for our insights and, though we delivered what they asked for, they didn’t want to hear it.

So, I prodded, “You’ve been doing that other thing and it hasn’t been working. You asked us to tell you what would work and all of the research says that we should be doing this other thing. What is it that you don’t like about it?”

His answer?

“It’s my experience that I don’t like this other thing, so I don’t think anyone else likes it either.”

(Again, not a direct quote – but you get the gist.)

Ah. Personal anecdote.

It isn’t about you…really

If I had a dollar for every decision that was made because of personal anecdote over evidence, I’d be a rich woman.

I’ve heard everything from “I don’t like this color” to “I don’t listen to podcasts (so we shouldn’t pursue that route, even though the evidence shows that their audience members are big podcast listeners)” to “Emails are annoying (after we found out that this is the preferred method of communication for their audience)” and the list goes on. We’ve spent crazy amounts of time and money testing messaging and images to find what works only to have a decision-maker undo it all because of their own personal preferences.

And the results of going with the “gut” of a couple of people (or sometimes even one decision-maker)? Well…

Now, I’m not saying that we should be entirely driven by data, especially in marketing. Data is pretty poor at handling the qualitative stuff like sentiment and emotion (don’t get me started with focus groups and surveys, which are also riddled with issues). There is also the danger of mixing up cause and effect – leading to data misleading the understanding of a situation. And yes, there will always be room for new and exciting innovation where there is no data to be found.

But over the years, I’ve seen way too many decision-makers, as well as in-groups (such as people who’ve been working within an organization for a long time), ignoring overwhelming evidence just because it doesn’t match their personal experience. Their personal biases are projected onto a project, hurting their efforts to connect with their audience, leading to loss of that audience.

But what about: “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

First off, there is no evidence that Henry Ford ever uttered that quote but, also, this attitude was what ended up leaving Ford Motor Company vulnerable to competition. Though it is certainly true that there are visionaries who are leagues ahead of what their customers can imagine, there is a certain hubris in believing that you are one of them.

Gut instincts and vision are important but need to be balanced with a “fact check” so that decisions are made that will serve the audience…you know, those people that you rely on to buy the products or services you’re selling. No matter who you are or what you’re selling, it won’t matter if the audience isn’t buying.

A ‘visionary’ walks into a meeting…

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

There is a big, hairy problem to solve. Maybe sales are down, or maybe the acquisition is consistent, but the company is bleeding customers, or perhaps the company spent millions on developing a new product, but it’s underperforming projections drastically. Whatever it is, they call together their top executives and consultants for a “brainstorming session” to solve the crisis.

Anyone who’s been paying attention already knows what’s wrong with this scenario. For anyone who hasn’t, here it is: BRAINSTORMING WITHOUT INSIGHTS IS A COMPLETE WASTE OF TIME

Almost every single brainstorming session I’ve ever attended has been, at best, a bunch of egos competing for air time, and, at worst, the start of the most expensive waste of “worse money thrown after bad” campaign in the history of a company. In preparation for several brainstorms I’ve been invited to, I’ve even attempted to do research ahead of the meeting to bring some level of grounding for the discussion. However, my insights are rarely accepted into evidence (and recently, I was told that research would “taint” the proceedings).

Brainstorms, as “creative” as they may be, are riddled with personal bias. Unless you provide some facts, insights, evidence, or data as a starting point, the ideas and input brought to these discussions will be almost entirely based on conjecture and anecdote.

Even worse, ignorance of the participants is likely to lead to decisions built on false assumptions. Decisions based on false assumptions may help you feel better, but they aren’t likely to get the results you need (or desire).

In one of these more disastrous brainstorms I attended, a dominant participant in the room proclaimed, “Nobody else is doing this, so we should do it!”

Everyone nodded enthusiastically and got quite excited…until I stepped in and ruined the party, “I hate to burst your bubble, but here is a list of at least twenty other companies doing this thing you say ‘nobody is doing.’ And further, it doesn’t even appear to be working for them.”

Consequently, I wasn’t invited to any more brainstorms and they proceeded with the idea anyway. The company no longer exists. Now, I’m not saying it was because they didn’t listen to me, but I’m pretty sure their disdain for facts did have something to do with it.

Nobody likes a know-it-all

Vintage pocket calculator, with both battery and solar power, and math operations limited to multiplication, division, addition, subtraction and square root. Isolated on a punchy pastel background

Over my decades in marketing, I know that I’ve ruffled feathers and made enemies banging on my “evidence” drum. My staff even made me a t-shirt that read, “I got data, b*tches!” because I’m known for getting a little too uppity around research and insights.

But here’s why I’m so passionate: becoming a researcher and understanding statistics and analytics helped me become a better creative. Data and insights don’t mean that creativity is stifled. In my experience, research actually focuses creativity in the right direction.

Another misattributed quote (this one to Sun Tzu, who didn’t actually write it in The Art of War, but came close) this makes me think of is: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy are the noise before defeat.”

I would rework this to say: research without intuition will lead to the dullest idea. Intuition without research will lead to the dumbest idea.

Insights & intuition, sitting in a tree…

I love data and insights and getting a really solid understanding of an audience and the situation at hand, but once you have that understanding, it’s time to get creative and emotional and squishy.

There is nothing wrong with pushing boundaries and “coloring outside the lines” after you know where the boundaries and lines are. If you don’t know where those lines are, you will likely miss your mark.

There is plenty of creativity and emotion and intuition and brainstorming to be had after you find the insights. Brainstorms get better: more focused, productive, and collaborative, and these sessions lead to better ideas that have better outcomes.

For every statement or assumption anyone makes in the room, there should be evidence to back it up. In a recent brainstorm, the statement was made that “the biggest market for cannabis is young men.” Well, it turns out that’s changing pretty quickly with recreational legalization and there is evidence that ignoring the emerging markets is detrimental to business. Without understanding the facts (the audience, the attitudes, the shifts, the competition, etc), the group may have gone down a bad path.

Imagine having a lawyer show up in court to defend your case and say, “I have plenty of ideas and experience. I’m just going to approach your case with my intuition.” Your chances of walking out of that courtroom with good results would be next to nil. Even the most experienced lawyer needs to examine all of the evidence and understand the case. You would never want to be represented by someone who refused to understand the situation. Similarly, you should never want a marketing plan created for you without knowing all of the evidence, either. There is just too much at stake to put your head in the sand.

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