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The Rise of the Manager of Meaning

golden meanThe roles of the CMO and the CIO are evolving. We know this. Of this change, it is more critical that they both evolve into something with a common purpose, than the change in role itself. Big Data just might be the big idea that hastens the alignment of this purpose, but it won’t, itself, deliver it. That will only come with the evolution of a new role in the organization – something I’m calling the Manager of Meaning.

Big Data Is a Big Box of Nonsense

I’ve been recently exploring how CMOs might actually derive value from Big Data, and I have a new talk this week debuting at CMS Expo in Chicago called Big Data – Extracting Value from a Big Box of Nonsense. I’m also in the midst of writing a longer paper on this topic. As I’ve been exploring, I’ve been reading (a lot) and have been blessed to speak in depth with a number of data practitioners, scholars, and generally big thinkers on the topic of Big Data and marketing.

There’s no doubt Big Data is this year’s Gangnam Style of business. It’s what all the kids are dancing to. Now the practice itself, of course, isn’t new. Businesses have been using various methods to leverage large data sets for business strategy for a eons, long before computers. Even the term itself isn’t new. It goes back, according to some sources, some 20 years when John Mashey, the Chief Scientist at Silicon Graphics, used the term in a (still surprisingly relevant) presentation called “Big Data and the Next Wave of Infrastress.”

What is new is that capabilities of technology and the rate of change in the organization have both increased exponentially. In a recent study, the CMO Council found that two-thirds of both marketers and IT Executives now feel that Big Data can surface customer-centric business opportunities. But, simultaneously, 52% of marketers and 45% of IT executives believe that functional silos still prevent the accumulation of data, and therefore hinder any kind of customer-centricity strategy.

I’ve certainly seen this directly in our own work with large enterprises. Basically, marketers are reading the scads of articles and research reports about how Big Data might be the best thing since sliced bread. But they have no idea how to bake.

And here’s the thing:

We Marketers Are Wired to Get this Wrong  

In 2008, science historian Michael Shermer coined the word “patternicity”. In his book The Believing Brain, he defines it as “the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.”  He goes on to say that humans have the tendency to “infuse these patterns with meaning, intention and agency.” He calls this “agenticity.”

So, as humans, we’re wired to make two types of errors that have relevance here.

  • Type 1 Errors – where we see “the false positive” – or the pattern that doesn’t really exist.  And,
  • Type 2 Errors – the false negative – where we fail to see the real pattern that actually does exist.

Marketers are even MORE hardwired for not only making Type 1 Errors, but for the “agenticity” that goes along with it.

Because so many marketers are pressured er… convinced to use analytics as “proof of life” of the strategy put forward, the measurement methodologies are built on making sure that they capture ANYTHING that looks like success. Web analytics dashboards – churning through “small data” – are  billboards for Type 1 Errors.  More traffic? The light is green. Never mind that the reason we have more traffic is because something we’ve just published went viral in a bad way (Chick-fil-A’s web traffic quadrupled over the span of one month last summer during the controversy over their CEO’s comments on the LGBT community). Is that a good thing?

A “data-driven marketing” mindset has pushed many marketers into scrambling to find patterns of success that may or may not be there.  We see increased time on site and call it “engagement” without knowing that it’s actually frustration because users can’t find what they’re looking for. We see “likes” as an indicator of success on Facebook, not acknowledging that people actually have to “like” your page before they can comment on how much they hate you.

Marriage of the Rational and the Emotional

I was privileged to be able to sit down and talk in depth with Wilson Raj, who is the Global Customer Intelligence Director at SAS.  He said something that truly resonated with me – “the data, while powerful, is only half the story. The other half is understanding the emotive needs of our customer. What are their aspirations, fears, dreams, desires etc…?

So how do we start to balance both of those things and extract value? Wilson again framed it well:

“CMOs must ask, ‘do I have the data?’  If the answer is ‘yes’, but I can’t get at it, I don’t have a Big Data problem, I have an analytics problem.  But if the answer is ‘no’, then the CMO must start to examine where they can get it and add in the missing linkages.”

And this is important for us as marketers. Because in order to properly ask, “do I have the data?” we must first answer “what small data is needed?”  As a side note here – my colleague Allen Bonde has an excellent post on the small data idea here.

Learning to Ask Better Questions

Marketers MUST understand that the data we have is always embedded as part of a context. Our data has inherent biases precisely because it is OUR data.

In order for Big Data to have any value beyond the information we already have, we will need to get beyond using analytics as a method to “prove” success or ROI, and instead use data and measurement as a method to improve the continuing process by which we derive more meaningful insight. Yeah, we’ve been talking about this for years – but this time we really need to do it.

We will need roles on our team (that I would argue don’t exist yet) that can peel back the layers of Big Data to make it small. These aren’t necessarily scientists or mathematicians. These people will have the talent to ask advancing questions of our data, our customers and influencers, and apply the art of listening, conversation, and synthesis to transform facts and results into meaningful insight.

Who are these people?

It sounds like I’m talking about what we know of as journalists. Or perhaps it’s a talented researcher. Or maybe it’s a new skill for the Data Scientist.  Or, perhaps this IS the role of the future Influence Marketer.  Quite candidly, I haven’t decided yet.

What I do know is that if Big Data is to be anything more to the marketer, other than just a big box of nonsense and distraction, then this role MUST exist. For now I’m calling it the Manager of Meaning.

I’ll be exploring this more soon.



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  • Sandy Gerber

    I absolutely agree that “the data we have is always embedded as part of a context” as you say. This is why I have noticed that when we gather data that is unsolicited, or in a way, gathered from sources where the respondents don’t know they are being respondents, the data can be more accurate. Take for example using Google’s Keyword Search Tool – it shows the way people think when they are online – they don’t use complete sentences because they’re trying to get the info quicker. They know how to use keywords and they know the brand they want and the city they want it in. This could tell us a lot about demographics, trends in media affecting buying behaviour and so on. It also feels more reliable because for the most part people don’t know that us marketers are ‘spying’ on what they are trying to find. So the context is theirs, and it is up to us to read into their reality and draw conclusions about what their expected behaviour will be once they they reach their destination on search.

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  • Uri Bar-Joseph

    Love this article, but the premise that a new role is required to put meaning into the data (the manager of meaning) is flawed.

    As you mentioned in the article, one of the biggest risks with the “big data movement” is that it gives people enough data to reinforce their confirmation bias – looking only for evidence that confirms their beliefs rather than denies them. And as you mentioned, to avoid the pitfalls of confirmation bias, you will need people who can ask the right questions, who can “apply the art of listening, conversation, and synthesis to transform facts and results into meaningful insight.” Who are those people, you ask. They are marketers.

    Instead of creating new roles in organizations and coming up with more specialties, we need to demand more of our marketers. If big data relies on the concept of integration of silos (“…functional silos still prevent the accumulation of data, and therefore hinder any kind of customer-centricity strategy.”) then consolidation of roles is in order as well, not further fragmentation. If context is the cure for data-blindness, then who’s better in providing that context than the marketers who run the programs?

    We need to demand more of our marketers. The correct application of big data should be part of their role.

    As I said, love the article. Thank you!


    • Robert Rose

      Thanks for the kind words…. As I say in the post – “I’m really not sure”. I’d absolutely agree with you that we should demand more of marketers – and maybe the manager of meaning is just a different role for the “analytics” focused marketer. But, in truth, I think most marketing departments are going to get more specialized, not less. And, in many cases, I think you’d need to allow for a more ombudsman-type of relationship between marketing and other elements of the business. We need a role that will ask the advancing questions of the data – without regard to what it may mean to the success/failure of a particular initiative.

      Even if only a transitory role (e.g. for the next few years as businesses navigate this transformation) I think most enterprises will need to backfill the skills needed here. Thanks again for the kind words.

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