Data-driven marketing is all the rage these days, but is it really doing us a favor? In the latest episode of the GoodTech vidcast, we spoke with consumer historian and humanist marketing expert Jason T Voiovich. He let us in on why focusing on data has made marketing worse, what we’re doing wrong and what we should be doing instead. Read a recap of our conversation below or watch the recording on our YouTube channel to find out what Jason means by rehumanizing marketing – and why we’ve got to start before it’s too late. 

What’s wrong with marketing today?

Jason wrote an article entitled Losing our religion: How worshipping at the altar of data makes marketing worse. In it, he explains that there is something fundamentally wrong with marketing today. Not only has the quality of marketing not gotten better in the last 20 years (while its quantity has grown exponentially), it actually seems to be getting worse. According to Jason, the culprit is our obsessive use of and reliance on data. 

“We’re confusing data with truly understanding the customer,” Jason says. When in fact, “Data is just one way to understand the customer – there are lots of others.”

The reason data is not helping our marketing efforts is that marketers often overestimate its power, drawing broad conclusions based on coincidental correlations found in large data sets and testing out their hypotheses on individual customers.

“Data is very messy […] it’s often not telling you what you think it’s telling you,” Jason says. 

He points out that humans are all unique individuals who do “contradictory, bizarre things that don’t make any sense” based on their impulses or emotional states. Data does not account for these characteristics: it reduces customers to statistics.  

Personalization versus humanization

We’ve all been exposed to personalized marketing content, or, as Jason puts it in his article, “ads that stalk you”. 

Are these ads really as personalized as companies like Facebook make them out to be?

Jason approaches this question by making a distinction between personalization and humanization. 

Personalization is often misguided because it relies on a statistical modeling process called multiple regression analysis that allows companies to create user profiles based on large sets of data. 

Marketers justify this practice by saying that it allows for more personalized advertising. Users seem to keep hoping that this promise will eventually come, and that “the AI will get better” – as if artificial intelligence was a guarantee for quality (according to Jason, the term ‘AI’ has been thrown around so much that it’s become completely empty).

Instead of focusing on how we can use data to create user profiles and personalized ads, marketers need to figure out: “How do we start to look at people as whole people?”

“Humanisation is a human exercise, a connection exercise. It’s more real, tangible and gratifying – it’s about really solving a problem that a customer has,” Jason explains. 

What is the future of marketing?

Thanks to data-based marketing tactics that do more to annoy people than provide relevant content for them, customers are losing faith in marketers.

Digital marketers use the internet as a free-for-all testing ground, where they can limitlessly test and iterate their campaigns without any sort of regard for the customer. For example, if a Google PPC campaign has a 3% clickthrough rate, it means that the ad is completely irrelevant to 97% of people who see it. “Most of what you see on Google is garbage,” says Jason. The very low cost of failure disincentivizes marketers – that’s how we end up with ads that “offend” people rather than being useful.  

“Marketing is the best tool we’ve ever come up with as a society to link customer needs with businesses. What I’m afraid of is that marketing won’t work anymore because nobody trusts what we do,” Jason says. 

If marketing stops working, “the risk to our economic way of life could be catastrophic – and we have to sound the alarm on this earlier rather than later,” he adds. 

We’re trading in our privacy for… what exactly?

Consumers are ready and willing to give up their data to companies like Facebook because they expect better service in return – ads that are more personalized and targeted, in other words, better marketing. However, are we really getting these benefits? And even if we were, do we think about what we’re giving up in return?

As Jason sees it, FAANG companies (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) “give away things for free and don’t show people the hidden costs.” 

“As consumers, we share some of that accountability for not educating ourselves, for not trying to understand the consequences of our actions,” he adds. 

He goes on to say that when we decide to use one of these free services, we’re not making an informed choice and we’re certainly not making sure that there’s a return on our investment. 

However, in the current ambience of techlash, more and more people are starting to question the way that companies handle their data, and whether they really have their users’ best interests at heart. 

According to Jason, it’s time for a new era, where companies like Facebook will disappear. 

“It’s a ripe situation for other organisations to come up with better ideas,” he says. 

So, what are marketers supposed to do now?

If experimenting with data has only made us lose our credibility, how are marketers supposed to do their job now?

“We need to reverse the dehumanisation of companies,” Jason says. “And we need to reestablish some respect for ourselves as marketers.”

Marketing alone does not have the answers to how we do this – which is why Jason ventured outside the field and looked at other disciplines to see how they communicate and how their methods can be applied to marketing. 

In his upcoming book Rehumanizing Marketing, Jason will explore what can we learn from nurses, rabbis, stand-up comedians and others to address the biggest problems of marketing today. He will attempt to find answers to questions such as: What is good marketing? How do we do statistics in the right way? How do we combine the data and the human approach?

Until his book comes out, here are a few quick tips from Jason that marketers can start implementing today. 

As per Jason’s research, there are three ways for marketers to reverse dehumanization. 

1. Take the time for self-care

Jason’s first piece of advice is true for all areas of life. We can’t take care of others unless we take care of ourselves. He recommends that we take some time to look at ourselves as marketers and really check in with ourselves before we try to care for others. 

2. Talk with real customers

“We need to spend a lot more time with real people,” Jason says, suggesting that we look at marketing as a “high-empathy job”. 

According to him, marketers should spend at least 50% of their time talking with real people. 

“Look at your data less and your people more,” he says. 

Of course, data isn’t evil – it’s a great tool to test assumptions that we’ve developed in a humanistic way. But we should always start with interviewing customers and trying to find patterns there.

3. Don’t try to change the world

Instead of going cold turkey, Jason recommends that we try to do one good thing at a time. Maybe choose not to use the data that we have on our customers, or try not to offend anyone with irrelevant ads. These are tiny, good behaviors that we should support. 

Has Jason’s take on marketing piqued your interest? Stay tuned. He’s back on June 11th – to talk about more tips for ethical marketing! 😉

See it LIVE every other Thursday at 6pmCET, or watch the recordings of previous episodes of GoodTech on our YouTube channel!