Uncovering the mysterious purpose of data

Lately, I’ve been addicted to murder mysteries. The bone-chilling kind of story that, when reading it, debilitates me from leaving my couch or bed as I’ve come to believe that a murderer (or zombie) is undoubtedly waiting for me around the corner. The big payoff; however, is the inevitable moment of the great murder mystery when the villain is uncovered, the plot-line divulged and all characters returned to safety. It makes little sense as to how addicted I have become to this medium because, yes, I understand that Santa isn’t real – and yes, I appreciate that even if he were, it is very unlikely that he would be driving around in an early-century Rolls Royce to kidnap the souls of children. The allure must be escapism.

The last years of my professional life have been speckled with the challenge of delivering relevant advertising under the large promise of Big Data. The problem has been; however, that much like my (yes, trashy) murder mystery novels, we have been operating under the mystery of what this actual large promise is. We’ve all been telling each other, “It’s just going to make things work better.” Unfortunately,  we have yet to actually discuss exactly the “What” or  what “These Things” are.

After several months of overseeing experts who are pixelling webpages, mapping data as a means to extending brilliant search ontology into meaningful audience segments and ultimately watching these segments be applied to online display campaigns, all excitement halted as Sales Managers and Operations Leads came to me to proclaim that “Data doesn’t work.” Yes, when data/audience segments were applied to campaigns, the campaigns only succeeded CTRs of 0.04% – vs. an industry standard CTR of 0.07%. It was brutal.

Months went by and the team continued to improve the data – making tweaks here and there and yet, CTRs didn’t boost. They didn’t even boost on the night that our ad server went wonky and the CTRs on ALL campaigns rose to over 0.60%; all campaigns that was, except for the campaigns that were targeted with audience data. Then the light bulb went off… If CTRs rose exponentially on that fateful night due to click fraud and click robots, it must inherently mean that our audience pixels were protecting against click fraud. That is, audience targeting via data enabled us to actually reach people. I know it sounds totally ridiculous – but it was a fundamental discovery that made us open our eyes. The 0.04% CTR wasn’t the problem because it meant that 0.04% of the time people were clicking on our banner ads. So who (or what?! … zombies?!!!) was clicking on the banner ads to generate a 0.07% CTR? Were any of these clicks from the 0.07% actually generating sales? (To date, I don’t know of any robots – or zombies – who have the disposable cash to generate positive ROIs for our marketing clients).

As we were sorting through these ideas, one of our clients at an advertising agency called us to congratulate us on our campaign that delivered a significantly better eCPA (effective cost per acquisition) than any of the 14 other suppliers she had used. That is, we were able to drive more sales of the financial client’s credit card than any other display marketing agency and thus, provided a better return on our client’s marketing investment. Why? You guessed it – because we applied data that enabled us to reach actual people who our brilliant team of data specialists determined would be most likely to need different credit service and were likely in the market (or to be in the market) for a new credit card.

The same discovery has been made as we start drilling past the CTRs into the actual results of the campaigns that we deliver. Our data (and our operations team who uses the data for success) routinely delivers more sales – on credit cards, contact lenses and minivans – than campaigns without the data.

As such, in this whole mystery of data – we’ve been all looking in the wrong place. We have been foolish in judging the success of our display campaigns based on clicks and traffic metrics. Instead, the real value of data within digital advertising has been illustrious hidden amongst a pool of calls, transactions and purchases. Data drives conversions.