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What Role Does Intuitive Thinking Play In the Age of Data-Driven Marketing?

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Today, you can hardly get through a discussion of any marketing topic without a mention of marketing data—and for good reason. The right data can help us make decisions grounded in reality, connected to what customers want, and contextualized to broader forces in the market. With so many statistics and analytics reports at our disposal, is there ever a situation where marketers can have success by going against the data and following old-fashioned human instincts?

Thankfully for us, the answer is yes. Even in the most data-driven organizations, curiosity and human intuition will always factor into your final insights. In fact, intuitive thinking may just be the secret to your next marketing breakthrough.

In a Forbes interview, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner suggests that it’s important to rely on instinct and intuitive thinking when making key business decisions. He notes that when you’re considering a problem, having multiple options on the table might be the “right” course of action—and your instincts can help you make the best decision.

When Eisner was deciding where to put Disneyland’s European location, he spoke to the then-CEO, who suggested that two options—Spain and France—could each be the right one. Each country offered its own benefits, but Eisner followed his instincts to go with France both because it was a crossroad for tourism and because of his own fond memories for the country. Today, that decision to create Disneyland Paris has paid dividends. In this example, Eisner factored in both marketplace research and a personal instinct into his business choice, showing how instincts can combine with data to help you make better decisions.

With the growing discussion around AI technology and the shift towards workforce automation, it feels like we’ve once again been thrown into that age-old debate of man versus machine. Given the increasing capabilities of technology to predict audience behavior through highly developed algorithms, how can we know when it’s right to rely on the much less predictable whims of human nature?

Intuition versus Marketing Data: Understanding the Landscape

intuition drives big decisions

Image attribution: Yoann Boyer

Not all that long ago, being effective in business meant having a “good gut” or a “good head” for the industry. As we’ve increasingly expanded our data capabilities, most of the conversation has shifted to how to use data more effectively to understand customers, guide decisions, and more.

Yet a new study from MIT and Think with Google reveals that leaders are still split on where they get their best information. More than 3,200 senior executives around the world were surveyed, and half of those were marketing leaders. Of those surveyed, 38% describe their organization as intuitive in its decision-making, compared to 27% who describe it as data driven. Meanwhile, 35% say their organizations are equally data driven and intuitive. In other words, a lot of people are still making big decisions relying at least in part on their intuition.

These big, belief-driven moves also come with very expensive stakes. One study from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, suggested that billion-dollar decisions are being made through intuition. A summary of the results finds that “CMOs report that one of their most effective applications of predictive analytics has been to leverage consumer data to support intuitive hypotheses.”

Your intuition might give you insights about an opportunity, seemingly unexpected ideas about how to serve your customers, or light bulb moments that data can back up.

In some cases, that “expertise as intuition” factor is another way intuition is described. The Harvard Business Review suggests that pattern recognition and other elements of experience may contribute to intuitive hits in business. One risk, they note, is overreliance on data: “the ‘big data, little brain’ phenomenon: managers who rely excessively on data to guide their decisions, abdicating their knowledge and experience.” Instead, HBR suggests combining expertise and data for better outcomes.

Marketing leaders agree. In fact, in one interview former Weight Watchers president and CEO David Kirchoff said, “Intuition, to make an obvious point, is not pulling stuff out of the air. It develops because you spend a lot of time thinking about a topic…Intuition sounds like it’s almost impulsive. It’s the opposite.”

Intuitive Thinking: What Science Says

Scientists are also exploring the role of intuition in business. Consider this recent example: As reported in Inc, “Just last year, an associate professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia, Joel Pearson, conducted a study on intuition—and for the first time, his research team found evidence that people can use their intuition to make better, faster, more accurate and more confident decisions.”

The research team defined intuition as the ‘brain process that gives people the ability to make decisions without the use of analytical reasoning,’ which in the business world seems like a bad idea, particularly given our increasing reliance on data. Even so, we can probably all agree that intuition must play some role in our decision-making, particularly when it comes to soft skills like human resources, networking and pitching business.”

How Can You Apply Intuition to Your Marketing?

It can be difficult to trust your own intuition, or to know how to integrate it in today’s marketing data landscape. Here are a few options:

1. Create Intuitive Hypotheses, and Test Them Through Data

One way to dip a toe into the water of intuitive marketing is to look for opportunities and ideas that your instincts point you to—and then test them with data. For example, I recently worked on a campaign where the marketing director pushed heavily for short, mobile-friendly video. The approach definitely aligned with best practices, but was not necessarily a great fit with what we knew about the audience for that particular organization. We decided to pilot some ad campaigns, which converted at about 5% higher than expected, and around the same time updated market research data showed that the audience had become more mobile than the last round of market research suggested. Turns out, his gut was totally on point, and the company had a profitable turn as a result.

2. Imagine the Customer Experience From Another Person’s Perspective

As one resource on business intuition notes, “Stories affect us mentally as well as physically.” Anne Krendl at the Dartmouth brain lab showed how viewers’ brains resonated with a specific emotion enacted on the screen.”When the central character was angry, the viewers’ brains registered anger as well. When the scene was sad, the viewers’ brains corresponded. Whenever we feel disgust, that brain region—the anterior insula— fires. We sense the other person’s intentions, and imagine what an experience means in his or her mind.”

Are you trying to design an element of the customer experience or create a product that solves a market problem? Try imagining the experience from the customer’s perspective. What’s important? What’s missing? What do you notice? This exercise might help bring unexpected insights.

intuitive thinking in marketing

Image attribution: Heidi Sandstrom

3. Customize Best Practices to Your Organization

Marketing is rife with best practices, tips, tactics, and strategies that “work for everyone.” Yet, in reality, marketers work in a complex ecosystem, and few methods can be applied wholesale. One organization may get all their clients through word of mouth, while another realizes excellent results through digital campaigns. Best practices on social media marketing can lead to a home run for one brand, and fall flat for another.

Are you interested in trying a new technology or applying framework? Explore what speaks to you at an intuitive level, and look for opportunities to customize them to your needs. For example, one marketer I spoke with recently wanted to roll out a wellness program for her department. Yet her underlying knowledge of the department suggested that organized classes weren’t a good cultural fit. She decided to trial both organized mindfulness classes, and simply setting aside space for things like yoga and quiet time. Ultimately, her gut was right. The classes were underutilized, while the room was booked all day. Even within internal teams you should listen to your instincts about what works best for the people you’re serving.

Where does all this leave the marketer who is trying to place intuitive thinking and marketing data within the context of their broader decision-making? There’s no single road forward, but your expertise and intuition can help you see things that data can back up. One thing’s for sure: Data is important, but don’t forget to check in with your intuition as a different way to spark creative thinking and insights that can improve your marketing.

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Featured image attribution: Jake Melara

Liz Alton is a technology and marketing writer, and content strategist, for Fortune 500 brands and creative agencies. Her specialties include marketing, technology, B2B, big data/analytics, cloud, and mobility. She's worked with clients including Adobe, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Twitter, ADP, and Google. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and an MBA. She is currently pursuing a master’s in journalism from Harvard University.

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