The Meaninglessness of Data

I’m just finishing Factfulness by Hans Rosling. This amazing book illuminates a world we barely recognize by challenging what we assume the “facts” to be.

Rosling posits that we are operating under perspective-distorting, emotion-fueled \”instincts\” about how to use information, causing us to assume the worst. Rosling argues that our world, according to a new look at data, is on an incredibly positive trajectory.

As marketers, we’ve become used to numbers – data – and our own interpretation of them. Numbers and data have become our steady, daily diet. We bet on them. We put our hope in them. We make big decisions to act or to wait because of them.

In fact, we’ve become so dependent on them we forget that, on their own, numbers are meaningless. Insight, information – meaning – must be derived from numbers.

Author and physicist Eli Goldratt summed it up well when he wrote,

“We are drowned in oceans of data; nevertheless, it seems as if we seldom have sufficient information.”

In our content marketing (and, yes, elsewhere), the flawed decisions that emerge from a misreading of numbers affect a great number of people.

When we talk about measuring content marketing and its efficacy in moving our business forward, this is a common challenge.

We’re awash in dashboards that summarize vanity metrics. We assign algorithms based on the patterns of these vanity metrics to try to apply meaning. But the real-world results don’t seem to correlate.

What we’re missing is the humanness of what’s behind the numbers.

Every company I’ve worked with faces different issues when it comes to connecting the creation and management of content to its value. But the core challenge is the same. Practitioners and managers are looking for numbers, dashboards, and reports that draw distinct lines to forecasted value – and they’re not finding them.

That’s because they don’t exist.

True measurement is designed, it’s not just a simple dashboard. Great measurement means walking out of our cubes, meeting the front-line people, and working out the meaning behind the numbers. It means talking with sales to agree on the right number to attribute leads or sales that come from our audiences. It means sitting down with customer service to discuss how content has helped decrease customer service costs. It means uncovering the meaning behind high engagement metrics and social shares and talking with real customers to see how content has affected their perception of our brand.

Finding the meaning is hard. It’s messy. And it’s not completely encapsulated in polls, surveys, or numbers.

Our access to data has created a tendency to pull back from human interactions that provide insight into deeper, sometimes hidden, meaning. Instead, it has pushed us toward isolation behind screens of meters and algorithmic probabilities. When we make decisions based on these numbers, we shouldn’t be surprised when we don’t like the results.

At the end of the introduction to Factfulness, Rosling writes, “This is a book about why you (and almost everyone I’ve ever met) do not see the world as it really is. It is about what you can do about it, and how this will make you feel more positive and more hopeful as you walk out of the circus tent and back into the world.”

The promise of this feeling can apply to our business as well. If we can look to the real value of the audience we’re building, and apply that value in meaningful ways, we might just see our work in a different way.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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