Data is the Way to Go — Except when it’s Not.

In last week’s column, I discussed what I called the disturbing dogma of social media. The idea provoked some strong responses (thank you! I’m always grateful for feedback). Traci Browne pointed out that I had used a narrow definition of social media, while others got into a reasonably heated discussion of its pros and cons.

The argument might have seemed like an ordinary blog post comment thread, but to me there was a meta-layer to it, one about the nature of discussion and the nature of attachment.

I recently heard again a familiar aphorism: “Data settles arguments.” It’s a phrase commonly used by proponents of A/B testing and iterative development. Its premise is simple: There is little to be gained from debating subjective aesthetic positions on this style or that one, from allowing temperatures to elevate in the name of being “right” about which cover picture we should use. We should, rather, put our options to the test — and may the better version win, in a kind of Darwinian “survival of the fittest design.”

Allowing data to settle arguments implies releasing attachments to opinions and assumptions. The Buddhists would be proud: the second of their Four Noble Truths is that the origin of all suffering is attachment. Openness to data also implies approaching debates with a different mindset, focused on a different outcome. As Joseph Joubert said, “The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory, but progress.”

On Monday, my MediaPost colleague Steve Smith posted a column about an Instagram campaign run by French mobile provider M6. Steve was impressed with the campaign’s social impact, but also included some statistics: “[T]he company saw 4.6 times more comments on its posts, over 95% of which were positive. And it saw 12 times more stories generated on its page with an increase of over 1400% in sharing. It calculated its cost per view at €0.14.”

Relative to M6’s baseline, the campaign was a clear success. But it’s up to them and their metrics whether €0.14 is a success or not. How many of those views turn into leads? How many of those leads convert? How long does a customer remain a customer, and, therefore, what is the total lifetime value of a conversion? In the end, company math is simple: if the cost to acquire a customer is less than their lifetime value, you stay alive. If it’s not, you don’t.

Coming back to the Buddhists: being notoriously difficult to pin down, they would probably equally frown on attachment to data. Steve Jobs, whose eclectic background famously included calligraphy studies, would likely concur, and certainly data cannot settle an argument about whether your design will stir the soul. The pyramids at Giza were not the product of A/B iterations; Picasso did not beta test his work. But while Picasso was best known for Cubism, his technical skill and ability to faithfully reproduce the outside world show clearly that his more abstract work is the result of conscious choice, not random scribblings.

At the risk of sounding repetitive of last week’s message, the important thing here is, in fact, that conscious choice: to be aware of when to rely on data and when to trust your instinct, and to be the one deciding between the two.

Let data settle arguments, when appropriate. Let go of attachment to opinions and assumptions, if you need to. But don’t forget to stir the soul.

By Kaila Colbin
Kaila Colbin is a serial entrepreneur who is fascinated by all things Web and human.
Courtesy of Media Post.

Skip to content